Feb 29, 2016 10:20 AM EST

Virtual Reality 'Heroin Cave' Helping Addicts Kick Habits

An innovative approach to fighting addictions places individuals in the very situations that trigger their cravings.

The research in the College of Houston Graduate College of Social Work uses  a  3D, virtual reality environment called the "Heroin Cave" projected onto the walls of a room with an eight-camera infrared system that projects existence-sized three-dimensional avatars and participants are placed in the very environments that trigger their addictions. 

The animated woman at the house party greets people as they enter.

"I'm Marsha. What's your name?" she asks. "Nice to meet you. Make yourself at home."

This party is complete with cool tunes, adult beverages, cigarettes, and drugs. If you are trying to kick your addiction, this is the party you'll want to attend.

"This is a first-of-its-kind for the University and the city," said Patrick Bordnick, professor and director of the Virtual Reality Clinical Research Laboratory at the University Of Houston Graduate College Of Social Work. "It's a virtual reality cave-laboratory, which we use to study human behavior."

"In traditional therapy we role-play with the patient but the context is all wrong," said Patrick Bordnick, an associate dean of research and one of the study leaders.

"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," Bordnick said.

Data from Bordnick past virtual reality studies on other kinds of addiction, for example, cigarettes has proven that participants report a greater degree of confidence to face up to temptation within the real life after learning coping abilities in virtual conditions.

"We want to know if decreasing craving in a lab modifies heroin use in the real world," Bordnick said.

"The Cave" is funded by a $1.3 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to study substance abuse and to help young investigators become substance-abuse researchers

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