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February 27, 2017

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Drug addicts use virtual reality to help kick habit

CHEN strapped a pair of virtual reality goggles to his eyes and put on a headset. As videos played, his heart pounded and his hands sweat.

Chen, a heroin and methamphetamine user for seven years, is undergoing treatment at the Zhejiang Liangzhu Rehabilitation Center in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province. The center is among several Chinese facilities to use virtual reality technology for drug rehabilitation.

There are over 1,100 patients at the center. Virtual reality treatment is introduced to patients who have undergone a typical detox program for at least a year.

“For now, we mainly use VR treatment for methamphetamine addicts. It is easy for meth addicts to quit the drug physically, but not psychologically,” said Xia Xia, a therapist at the Liangzhu center.

Meth addicts show fewer withdrawal symptoms than heroin users. “Using VR helps them cut their psychological reliance on the drug,” Xia said.

Chen has participated in two VR treatment sessions so far. In each, he donned goggles and a headset while a computer was used to record his heartbeat.

Three videos played for 20 minutes in total. The first one showed familiar scenarios that trigger drug cravings, Xia said.

Chen watched videos showing several people gathered in hotels to use meth. He heard lighters hitting the table and the rumbling sound of meth burning in glass pipes.

“The scenarios were so familiar,” Chen said.

The second video, a form of aversion therapy, showed people experiencing dizzy hallucinations, their bodies zipped up in bags, and maggots gnawing at their bones.

“So much horrible pain came when I used drugs. It awakened my worst fears and made me want to vomit,” Chen said.

The third video showed appetizing meals and happy family time. Chen’s heart pounded fast. He has spent too much time in repeated rehab treatment and misses his family.

“Progressively playing videos aims to help them turn their reliance on drugs into hate and fear of drugs,” Dr Wang Yongguang, an expert with the Zhejiang Provincial Rehabilitation Management Bureau, who helped develop the VR treatment.


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