Sara Bellum
January 22 2014

Do you or your friends play video games? Many video games create a virtual reality, a world that only exists on a computer, made up of vivid images and engrossing stories. Researchers are looking at ways to use the power of virtual reality to help people with conditions ranging from fear of flying to drug addiction. The use of virtual reality to help people with specific health conditions is called virtual reality therapy.

Researchers at Duke University are trying virtual reality therapy as a treatment for drug addiction. This NIDA-funded research may help people recovering from addiction keep from returning to drug use (relapse). This is how it works:

  • Researchers use virtual realities to create common situations where people recovering from drug addiction might encounter drugs.
  • These virtual situations help people develop strategies to overcome cravings they might feel in the real world when they come into contact with the drug or when they find themselves in situations where they used to abuse drugs, like at a party.
  • In the virtual worlds visited during treatment, people get support and ideas to help them recognize and conquer their cravings.

Research shows that when recovering people develop strategies to avoid relapse in a virtual world, they are able to take those strategies and use them in real-world situations.

Researchers are also exploring virtual reality therapy as a way to help people with eating disorders, like those that lead to obesity. Many scientists believe that some people become obese because they are addicted to food. Food addiction may be similar to drug addiction, where food triggers reward signals in the brain and makes people who are addicted to food crave it even if they aren’t hungry. Virtual realities might help people develop strategies to overcome their food cravings.

Have you ever taken a skill you learned in a video game and used it in the real world? Tell us in comments. 

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