Health Team

Virtual world helps returning soldiers battle addiction

Posted May 3, 2012 5:30 p.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2012 9:34 a.m. EDT

— Many veterans of war return home to their families haunted by memories of violence and death, and, in some cases, soldiers turn to substance abuse to help mask or cope with the feelings and emotions associated with war.

Soldiers dealing with the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can have an especially difficult time, but thanks to a Duke University Hospital research program that uses virtual gaming technology, some are getting exactly the type of help they need. 

Using a computer-generated world full of temptation, researchers are able to test former soldiers with anything from a glass of beer to a cigarette. The world, designed to look like parts of Durham, even includes a local bar. 

Charles McCrimmon, a former Marine who returned home in 1977, joined the Duke study in August after dealing with PTSD symptoms for years. McCrimmon said he would drink heavily in an attempt to eliminate memories of his time overseas and a head-on collision he was involved in just before being deployed. 

The virtual world tests McCrimmon and other soldiers like him so they can train their minds not to respond to cravings when faced with temptations like drugs or alcohol. The virtual experience can also be tailored to each individual. They can include other characters and cues for crack cocaine use, marijuana or pills. 

They also follow up with participants using a cellphone tone sent to them a couple of times a day to remind them of the steps they've learned to deal with the cravings. 

"So once the cravings go down, there's sort of this magic moment where learning has occurred," Duke psychiatrist and behavioral sciences expert Zach Rosenthal said. "We think the brain is learning that, even if they are exposed to substance-related clues, they don't actually have to use [drugs or alcohol]."

McCrimmon, who is still undergoing treatment for his flashbacks, says the virtual program eliminated his desire to drink and improved his overall quality of life.

"I don't drink anymore," said McCrimmon. "I still have those flashbacks of my accident, and I just don't want to drink. Now I see things more clear, and life is more enjoyable."

For more information about this study, contact the Duke Cognitive Behavior Research and Treatment Program at 919-684-1131. Ask for study coordinator Sherika Oliver.