UTA explores use of VR for substance use treatment

Social Work faculty member uses virtual reality for substance use treatment in pilot study

Wednesday, Jun 12, 2024 • Neph Rivera : contact

Photo of Micki Washburn, UTA assistant professor in the School of Social Work" _languageinserted="true

A University of Texas at Arlington assistant professor is proving that virtual reality (VR) software is not just for gaming. It can be a force for healing.

A team of researchers that includes Micki Washburn from the School of Social Work’s Bachelor of Science in Substance Use and Treatment program is working with The Menninger Clinic in Houston to conduct a pilot project in which patients with substance use needs will use VR software as an additional form of treatment.

The program immerses patients in scenarios to help combat the triggers that previously led them to use and practice ways to fight their cravings. VR allows a safe way for patients—and their clinicians—to face those difficulties head on.

“I can’t go with a client of mine and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go to where you used to buy drugs. But when your dealer comes up to you, you’re going to say no,’” Washburn said. “That doesn’t work for many ethical reasons.

“But we know that exposure to substance use cues is what helps prevent relapse. VR makes this exposure safe and feasible. By doing this in a virtual space, we’re able to approximate real life in a way that you just couldn’t do before.”

Funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, the project will expose 50 participants with a history of polysubstance use to customizable virtual environments with cues designed to trigger their cravings under the supervision of a licensed therapist. While in the virtual space, they will learn how to tolerate their cravings while learning relapse-prevention skills.

The therapist will interact with participants throughout their VR experience, including encouraging them to connect with their thoughts and emotions.

“We want to make sure they are feeling the craving and understand that it is OK,” Washburn said. “In a sense, we’re telling them, ‘You are not going to die if you don’t act on your cravings. You can learn to tolerate them and deal with them in a healthy way.’”

Researchers will follow up with participants one month and three months after treatment to check on their substance use and assess several quality-of-life indicators, including employment, housing stability and decreases in emergency health care usage and interactions with the legal and child welfare systems. These are critical endpoints that Washburn says provide a more holistic look at a client’s progress beyond simple abstinence.v

She hopes that establishing the pilot program’s effectiveness will lead to not only FDA approval of her unique VR product for use in substance use treatment, but also for insurance companies to cover it, making it accessible to more patients.


The National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health supported this research with grant 1R44DA059475-01.