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Kick That Habit (the Virtual Way)

March 1, 1999

Quitting addictive drugs is a frustrating-and often futile-process. All around the struggling addict are environmental cues that can prompt a craving for the drug. Help through this difficult experience might come from an unexpected quarter: virtual reality.

The idea is to desensitize drug users to the sights, sounds and smells that trigger the urge to get high, says Jose Gonzales, CEO of TRI Center, a for-profit chemical dependency treatment center in New York City.

Gonzales places the addict seeking treatment in an immersive virtual reality rig. While a headset displays a video from a laser disc, sensors monitor respiration rate, pulse rate, perspiration and skin temperature; therapists correlate spikes in bodily responses to particular scenes from the videodisc. Once the triggers are identified, TRI subjects its clients to the most provocative scenes over and over again. By watching the instrumentation readouts, the subjects learn to suppress their cravings.

Gonzales can, so far, offer only anecdotal evidence that TRI’s technology works. But the novel approach has impressed some experts who have seen it demonstrated. “This is potentially valuable and merits further research,” says Peter Berke, a social worker at Managed Health Care Systems of New York. “I applaud the attempt to do something new and different.”

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