Employing Virtual Reality to Battle Alcoholism and Addiction in PTSD-Plagued U.S. Combat Veterans

Employing Virtual Reality to Battle Alcoholism and Addiction in PTSD-Plagued U.S. Combat Veterans

By John Lavitt

Is battling addiction with a virtual world a real possibility? Scientists and technologists in the Duke University Hospital research program in Durham, North Carolina, are battling addiction in veterans by using a virtual world, according to a report on clinicaltrials.gov. Substance abuse has been a common problem for soldiers returning from both current conflicts and past conflicts as well. What is so intriguing about the Duke program is that the virtual world is not a fantasy creation, but is based on the reality of the soldier’s actual present-day surroundings.

Often, veterans returning home to their families are haunted by memories of the violence and death they experienced firsthand. The result has been a plague of post-traumatic stress symptoms. In many cases, soldiers suffering PTSD symptomology turn to substance abuse to help mask the pain or to cope with the disturbing emotions. As a replacement addiction, the negative impulses toward violence are dulled and veiled by various manifestations of addiction and alcoholism. The substance abuse creates a new disease that adds to the suffering from PTSD. Frustratingly little work has been done to help such soldiers alleviate their symptoms and avoid the pitfalls of addiction.

The virtual gaming program used by the Duke researchers is a new strategy for battling such challenges. The technology focuses on creating a virtual world as identical to the real world as possible. The computer-generated world has been designed to look like parts of Durham, even going so far as to include a local bar. Using a computer-generated world full of temptation, researchers are able to test former soldiers with anything from a glass of beer to a cigarette, and even drugs.

Quoted in a report on wral.com, Charles McCrimmon, a former Marine who returned home in 1977, joined the Duke study in August after dealing with PTSD symptoms for years. McCrimmon said he would drink to block out the harsh memories of his time in the service. In particular, he was plagued by a head-on collision he was in before being deployed.

While still undergoing treatment for his flashbacks, McCrimmon says the virtual program has eliminated his desire to drink and has improved his overall quality of life; he no longer battles addiction and alcoholism. “I don\'t drink anymore,” said McCrimmon. “I still have those flashbacks of my accident, and I just don\'t want to drink. Now I see things more clear, and life is more enjoyable.”

The virtual world tests McCrimmon and other soldiers like him so they can train their minds not to respond to cravings when faced with temptations, such as drugs or alcohol. What is so intriguing is how the virtual experience can be tailored to meet the needs of each individual. Beyond alcohol and bars, the world includes other characters, personality types, and triggers for crack, powder cocaine, marijuana, and prescription pills. Battling addiction and alcoholism is the heart of the program.

Duke psychiatrist and behavioral sciences expert, Zach Rosenthal, explains how the study is designed to help: “Once the cravings go down, there\'s sort of this magic moment where learning has occurred. We think the brain is learning that, even if [it is] exposed to substance-related clues, [it doesn’t] actually have to use [drugs or alcohol].”

What has also made the study so effective is an ongoing attempt to follow up with participants by using a cell phone tone that is sent to them a couple of times a day. The tone is designed to remind them of the steps they have learned and the tools they have developed to deal with the cravings. Like a positive trigger, this tool produces a combination of a reminder and a therapeutic reinforcement. If such technologies and aversion strategies are proven to be effective and the Duke study is successful, such virtual strategies can be applied in the future to people battling addiction in any circumstance.


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