New Ways to Treat Addiction and PTSD with Cognitive Training

Imagine stepping into a virtual reality environment that recreates in amazing detail the sights, sounds, and smells of a past experience, or a setting that triggers addictive behaviors, such as a bar scene with a favorite drink placed in front of a recovering alcoholic. And then into this virtual reality steps a helpful digital avatar that guides the user through difficult emotions, and into developing better coping skills.

That’s the goal of new cognitive technology systems in development that were demonstrated at the ESCoNS 2.0 conference, which marries entertainment software with practical cognitive neuroscience.

Much of the current virtual reality (VR) research is being funded by the Dept. of Defense, which has been trying for years to help military service members who suffer from brain injuries and PTSD symptoms as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr. Skip Rizzo from USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies demonstrated a powerful VR environment, dubbed “exposure therapy”, that places the user in a Humvee during an IED attack. In addition to the visual and auditory stimulation, the VR system includes strong low frequency waves that approximate the blast wave of an IED detonation. The hope is that allowing service members to relive these experiences in a “safe” environment, the training will tune-down the overly active stress responses many have after returning home.

VR cognitive training for emotional resilience and good coping behaviors also show some promise. Typical addiction relapse rates are very high with traditional treatments, which has created something of a revolving door (and profitable business model) with the hundreds of addiction treatment centers in the US. Lower cost VR applications could open the door to better and more sustainable outcomes for many types of addiction.