There’s a host of environmental cues that can trigger cravings in addicts. Videos of people using drugs and images of drug paraphernalia are two of the biggest triggers for many addicts. Understanding the nature of cravings is a very important phenomenon of the recovery process because it helps dictate proper treatment methods for an individual case.
In a recent study conducted at UCLA, researchers used Second Life to find out if cues in virtual environments could produce real drug cravings in addicts. And if so, researchers wanted to know if the resulting cravings were neurologically similar to ones that resulted from cue’s in an addict’s real-life environment. To conduct this study, researchers at UCLA designed a 3-D methamphetamine apartment on Second Life, a virtual world platform. The researcher’s goal was to study cravings in the hopes of developing and testing new treatments for meth-amphetamine addiction. Neuroscience PhD student Christopher Culbertson and virtual environment designer Itay Zaharovits used self-reports from meth users to create a photo-realistic interactive environment on Second Life that resembled the apartment of a meth addict and a clean apartment to act as the control.
Using a 32-inch monitor, video game controller, and surround sound audio system, researchers analyzed 17 meth users as they passed time in each apartment and monitored the participant’s heart rate and blood pressure. The participants were allowed to click on objects such as syringes, lighters and lines of meth and they self-reported on their level of craving. While the final results of the study are scheduled to be published in the October issue of Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, preliminary results have shown that the Second Life interpretation of a meth house is an improvement from the traditional research done in the past using visual cues such as videos and drug paraphernalia to test for cravings. According to Culbertson, the next step in the research process is to record and analyze more participants within the virtual meth house so clinicians can design better treatments methods to help addicts overcome the strongest temptations to use again.