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Drugs & Health Blog

Virtual Reality and Drug Abuse Treatment

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Sara Bellum

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. 

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


I remember on the news there was this young teenager who saved his friend from a bear attack by his knowledge learned from the video game World of Warcraft. I know that virtual reality will be a key solution in helping people get over many challenges in their lives. Surprisingly enough, I got over my fear of needles and sharp things playing a game called Dark Souls where many traps surprise you with... sharp objects. I used to feel uncomfortable just looking at tree branches but now I don't have a problem with it! Matthew Shore [commercial link removed, per guidelines]
Polybius is said to be an urban myth but was developed by the creator of battlezone. The CIA did tests on rather unsuspecting players with symptoms of insomnia, night terrors. the CIA had two projects called midnight climax and Mk ultra were used as porn houses. There was a "misfiling" with the folders and soon i bet the CIA still has them kept away hidden in a safe.
Virtual reality is also helping to train professionals in the transportation business. In some places, some of your training to receive your CDL is in a virtual environment. This has already been used for several years in the aviation business, and will soon be implemented in training young drivers in defensive driving techniques. Thank you for sharing this article, and showing us the benefits of virtual reality. Eric | [link removed per commenting policy]
Virtual environment is help in treatment.
Thank you for sharing. It is wonderful. It is a different way of dealing addictions. Addictions are of different types but dealing addiction in this way is something very different.My son was addicted to gambling and we tried our best to help him come out of his gambling.But all our hard work was in vain. We have planned to take him to Canada Drug Rehab in Toronto. Will virtual therapy be useful for a person who is addicted to gambling? If virtual therapy would benefit my son, we would love to try this and help our son from gambling addiction.

Hi Lucia, we can't say what kind of treatment is best for your son, so please talk with a doctor about what type of therapy might benefit him. Good luck!