British Columbia

Can virtual reality help drug addicts recover? Researchers from SFU aim to find out

60 recovering addicts will join SFU researchers in a cutting edge virtual reality research and treatment project at Surrey's John Volken Academy.

Recovering addicts and researchers team up in cutting edge virtual reality research project

Prof. Faranak Farzan is heading up a project using virtual reality in the assessment and treatment of addicts attending the John Volken Academy in Surrey. (SFU)

A recovering cocaine addict walks into a room where the party is in full swing: drinks are flowing, music is pulsing and drugs are being passed around. A person approaches, offering coke. 

It's a situation loaded with triggers for the addict, which is exactly the point. 

It's also a situation that — this time — doesn't exist in any real way.

The room, the party and the cocaine are all simulated, and the person offering the drugs an avatar. All have been created by a team of virtual reality specialists tasked with building a worst case scenario for the addict as a way to gauge whether treatment is in fact working.

Virtual reality is a computer generated, three-dimensional environment that is projected inside a headset. It's supposed be an immersive experience that mimics reality. (Shutterstock / Wayne0216)

In the next two months, 60 students enrolled at Surrey's John Volken Academy, a long-term residential addictions treatment centre, will be strapping on VR headsets and immersing themselves in virtual situations that have been tailor-made for their personal experiences and addiction issues.

Testing relapse response

The cutting edge program is being led by SFU professor Faranak Farzan, chair in technology innovations for youth addiction recovery. 

"They clients come to the [John Volken Academy] to recover from their bad habits but after two years they have to go back and live their lives," said Farzan. 

"We're hoping to use virtual reality to slowly introduce environmental cues that they were exposed to back home, but in a very safe environment to assess where they are in terms of relapse or giving into their impulses."

The project is still in the start-up phase with researchers interviewing the students to gather information to create a personalized VR environment. 

"If someone is taking opioids for pain management for instance, my guess is the environment they're using in is much different than someone who is using cocaine. We don't want to put them in the same context, it wouldn't make sense," said Farzan.

"We need to...find out what they are prone to. It could be a party for someone, but it could be a school yard for someone else. And it could be at home in the back yard for another individual."

VR research in its infancy

Virtual reality has long been talked about as potentially useful in addictions therapy, but the technology has only recently become "real feeling" enough to be considered a serious tool.

And because the area of study is so new, researchers still need to answer what Farzan describes as the "million dollar question" in VR application: will an addict's behaviour in the virtual world transfer to real life?

"This is what we are trying to understand," she said. "Right now we're designing what makes intuitive sense and rolling that out. But at the end of the day we need also to run randomized controlled trials."

60 recovering drug and alcohol addicts from the John Volken Academy in Surrey will participate in the virtual reality project. (CBC)

John Volken has made a five-year commitment to the research, and hopes to expand the VR program to his two addiction treatment centres in the United States. 

"The students are excited about it because they feel they're getting some real professional help," he said.

"The key part here is that we're working with people who have lived through addiction," said Farzan. "We're not sitting in our research labs trying to design something based just on what we think."