Virtual Reality Helps Smokers Kick the Habit

Virtual therapy can help cigarette smokers make real progress with their addiction.

Researchers from Canada's GRAP Occupational Psychology Clinic and the University of Quebec in Gatineau took 91 smokers, divided them into two groups and enrolled them in a 12-week anti-smoking support program.

WATCH VIDEO: A virtual reality game, called "Virtual Iraq," is helping soldiers deal with mental scars.

Each group also played a specially designed video game four times a week. After entering a computer-generated virtual environment, participants in the experimental group chased down floating cigarettes and crushed them. The control group crushed floating balls.

"In the past 10 years, our clinic has seen over 4,000 smokers, with a rate of success of around 50 percent with traditional methods to stop smoking," GRAP virtual reality specialist Vincent Turcotte told Discovery News. "We wanted to find a way to help the other 50 percent of smokers who didn't quit. The idea of virtual reality came as a probable good way to block the smokers' conditional reflexes, like bringing the hand to the mouth to smoke."

The study's findings showed significant reduction in nicotine cravings among smokers in the cigarette-crushing group. At week 12, 15 percent of the cigarette crushers had abstained from smoking, compared to 2 percent among the control group.

During a six-month follow-up, 20 percent of participants in the control group reported not smoking during the previous week. That rate reached 39 percent among the experimental group.

The game also may have provided participants with positive associations to stave off urges. In other words, crushing cigarettes in the virtual reality environment was actually conditioning smokers to resist their urge to light up.

"Twenty-three percent of the participants in the experimental condition reported having had flashback memories of crushing cigarettes in the virtual environment, as opposed to 3 percent in the control condition," Turcotte said. "From what participants were saying, most of these flashbacks happen when they had an urge to smoke, which helped them control the urge."

Turcotte said that some participants bypassed the treatment's effects by rationalizing that they were capturing and storing -- not destroying -- the precious smokes.

University of Southern California professor Skip Rizzo has spent years exploring the use of virtual reality to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Iraq war veterans.

His project, "Virtual Iraq," treats PTSD by replicating events the patient actually experienced. Presumably the people virtually crushing cigarettes had never done so in real life.

"I'm surprised it had an impact on people's smoking," Rizzo told Discovery News. "But as with the treatment of anxiety disorder, even though people know it's a simulation, they still react to it. Part of the brain is fooled, and you see that what people do in virtual reality can have an impact on the real world."

Virtual reality treatments continue to make headway, examining everything from the prevention of schoolyard bullying to treating crack cocaine addiction.

"Simulation technology is getting wider acceptance," Rizzo said. "It's not just playing games. You really can do things in a clinical setting that make a difference in real life."

GRAP's study is available free online.

Robert Lamb is a staff writer with HowStuffWorks.com.

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