A form of "virtual reality" therapy might help treat alcohol addiction, suggests a preliminary study from South Korea.
The study involved only 10 patients with alcohol dependence. But senior researcher Dr. Doug Hyun Han of Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul and colleagues think the approach might be promising, in part because it puts patients in situations similar to real life and requires their active participation.
Participants first went through a week-long detox programme, followed by virtual reality sessions using a 3D-television screen, twice a week for five weeks. During each session, the participants cycled through three virtual realities.
One reality was meant to relax them. The second was meant to trigger alcohol cravings in a situation where other people were drinking. The last was meant to make drinking seem unpleasant, by transporting participants to a room where people were getting sick from alcohol. The participants also drank a vomit-tasting drink during the aversion simulation.
Areas of the brain thought to be sensitive to alcohol showed changes after repeated exposure to the three different virtual realities, researchers found.
Before the therapy, the researchers compared participants' brain metabolism to that in a comparison group of people without alcohol dependence, using positron emission tomography and computed tomography scans. The alcohol-dependent group had more metabolic activity in the limbic system of the brain, which is tied to emotions and behaviour.
But on brains scans done after five weeks of therapy, metabolic activity had decreased in this area for the alcohol-dependent participants, according to a report in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
On subjective and objective measures, alcohol craving was reduced after the aversive scene, Han told Reuters Health.
But there will need to be more research into the long-term results of virtual reality therapy, and testing whether this method may work for other kinds of addiction, he said in an email.
"Although this pilot study seems to indicate that virtual reality may produce some changes in brain metabolism, this is not yet studied as a treatment approach," said Dr. Bernard Le Foll, head of the Alcohol Research and Treatment Clinic, Addiction Medicine Services, Ambulatory Care and Structured Treatments at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada.
Le Foll was not involved with the new paper.
"Much more research work needs to be done to be able to determine if 'virtual reality' treatment will have a place in the treatment of alcohol use disorder," in western countries, he told Reuters Health by email.
Currently, behavioural therapy combined with pharmaceuticals like naltrexone, acamprosate or topiramate is the recommended treatment for alcohol use disorder, and can make a big difference for patients, he said.