Virtual reality therapy (VRT) uses multimodal stimulation that includes visual, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory stimuli. The aim of this study was to assess the effectiveness of VRT in treating subjects with alcohol dependence (AD) by evaluating changes in brain metabolism.
The VRT protocol consisted of three steps: relaxation, presentation of a high-risk situation, and presentation of an aversive situation. Twelve alcohol-dependent subjects underwent 10 sessions of VRT. The alcohol-dependent subjects were assessed with 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography images before and after VRT, whereas the control group underwent imaging according to the same protocol only at baseline.
Compared with the healthy control group, AD subjects showed higher metabolism in the right lentiform nucleus and right temporal lobe (BA20) at baseline (PFDR < .05 = .026). In addition, the metabolism in the left anterior cingulate was lower in subjects with AD (Puncorr = .001). After VRT, alcohol-dependent subjects showed decreased brain metabolism in the right lentiform nucleus (PFDR < .05 = .026) and right temporal lobe (BA38, PFDR < .05 = .032) relative to that at baseline.
Our results suggest a neurobiological imbalance, notably, a high sensitivity to stimuli, in the limbic system in subjects with AD. Furthermore, we determined that metabolism decreased in the basal ganglia after VRT, which may explain the limbic-regulated responses of reward and regulation. Therefore, we tentatively recommend VRT to treat AD through its regulating effect on limbic circuits.