Kicking Heroin Cravings Using Technology

A new study at the University of Houston is using an innovative form of technology to help people overcome their Heroin addiction.

During the study, participants are given virtual reality headsets and guided through a simulated ‘Heroin cave.’

The cave is designed to feel like a house party where participants might be tempted to snort or inject drugs. The cave took nearly a year to construct, as researchers wanted to make the environment appear as realistic as possible to participants hoping to combat their addictive cravings.

The scene includes details like an open pizza box, cash on a table, syringes, and pill bottles. These were strategically placed to augment sensations and induce cravings in a safe, controlled setting.

The virtual reality setup uses an 8-camera infrared system that projects life-sized 3D avatars and environments that participants interact with using their headsets. The simulated environment is said to feel “highly realistic” and the avatars actively engage with the participant, coaxing them to use drugs.

Therapists will observe the participants as they make their way through the “Heroin cave” and talk them through the process, providing important coping strategies along the way.

From Rehab To Real Life

The study aims to address an issue with the environment of addiction treatment that may be linked to relapse rates and overdoses.

In traditional therapy we role-play with the patient but the context is all wrong. They know they’re in a therapist’s office and the drug isn’t there. We need to put patients in realistic virtual reality environments and make them feel they are there with the drug, and the temptation, to get a clearer picture and improve interventions.

- Patrick Bordnick, an associate dean of research and one of the study leaders

The disconnect that Bordnick brings up between going from a highly structured, monitored addiction treatment program back to a home environment sprinkled with triggers is one of the main contributors to a relapse.

Individuals who don’t have a relapse prevention plan or coping mechanisms are more likely to use again.

Those who take advantage of continued care options after treatment, such as sober living homes or support groups, are also less likely to relapse. Maintaining a strong support system and surrounding yourself with sober friends and encouragement are key to staying on the road to recovery.

Bordnick has conducted studies in the past that use virtual reality technology to help treat addictions such as Nicotine. These studies have shown positive results. His research displayed that participants who learn coping skills in virtual environments report a higher level of confidence to resist temptation in the real world.

We want to know if decreasing craving in a lab modifies Heroin use in the real world.

- Prof. Patrick Bordnick

The results of the study will speak to the effectiveness of using virtual reality simulation as a way to treat addictions in the future.

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