Clinical and Research News
`Virtual' Crack House Opens Doors To Addiction Researchers
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 13 page 45-45

As with other drug dens, people in the "virtual" crack house buy and use crack cocaine and trade sex for drugs. Occasionally, the police burst through the door and make arrests.

But the virtual crack house is safe. Not only that, it's therapeutic, according to Barbara Rothbaum, Ph.D., who is an associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. The program built a virtual environment to study the cues that trigger drug use in people addicted to crack cocaine.

"With substance use disorders, it's dangerous and unethical to present patients with real cues—with virtual reality, we can do that in a controlled treatment setting," Rothbaum told Psychiatric News.

She worked with computer programmers to create the virtual world from digital pictures of a real crack house in Atlanta, she explained, and consulted with a graphic designer to design a path that patients would take once they entered the virtual crack house.

When they don the virtual reality headgear, subjects who are addicted to crack enter the crack house and are exposed to a variety of cues that typically trigger drug use—people dealing and using crack, people sleeping off the effects of the drug, and the sounds of people having sex, for example.

As people move around the crack house on a preprogrammed path, clinicians ask the individuals to rate their urges to use crack when presented with certain cues.

Rothbaum and her colleagues will try to determine which cues trigger the strongest cravings in people with cocaine addiction.

Ultimately, Rothbaum said, the virtual-reality program can be used to test pharmacological and psychotherapeutic interventions that clinicians might be able to use to help addiction patients resist their cravings. ▪

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