Studying addiction in a virtual meth house

Researchers at UCLA have developed a 3D meth apartment in Second Life to study the neurological mechanisms involved in both drug cravings and relapse.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
The virtual meth house is rife with temptations, including meth, pipes, syringes, and avatars of addicts using. UCLA

Just as catching a whiff of fresh coffee beans can trigger cravings for my own addictive habit of choice, many environmental cues can create a very real physical response in drug addicts.

Studying cravings is an important part of designing treatments for addictions, and scientists have long studied the way in which cues like videos and drug paraphernalia trigger those cravings. Now, one group of researchers are trying to find out if cues in virtual environments like Second Life can produce real drug cravings in addicts as well. And if so, are those cravings neurologically similar to ones resulting from cues in a person's real environment?

Researchers at UCLA think so, and have designed a 3D meth apartment on Second Life to study those cravings in the hopes of developing and testing new treatments for meth addiction. (Of course, how the power of scent triggers cravings is not [yet] being studied here.)

Neuroscience PhD student Christopher Culbertson and virtual environment designer Itay Zaharovits used self-reports from meth users to create a photo-realistic interactive environment resembling the surroundings and experiences that stimulant addicts often face, replete with graffiti, pipes, syringes, avatars using, and more.

They also created a neutral, "clean" apartment to act as the control, with all the trappings of tranquility, including soft sunlight and classical music.

In a safe, clinical setting with nothing but a 32-inch monitor, video game controller, and surround-sound audio system, 17 meth users passed time in each apartment, with exposure to both animate objects (avatars sitting on couches, injecting meth, and what-have-you) and inanimate objects (lines of meth, lighters, syringes). Their heart rates and blood pressures were measured, they were allowed to click on pipes and syringes if/when they wanted to use, and they self-reported on their levels of craving.

Preliminary results, which indicate that Culbertson's Second Life interpretation of a meth house is an improvement over traditional visual cues such as videos and drug paraphernalia in prompting cravings, appear in the October 2010 issue of Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior.

Culbertson says the next step is to record and analyze more participant behavior within the virtual meth house so that they can design treatments that help avoid and/or overcome the strongest temptations to use again.

Oh, and if you want to see what the meth apartment does for you, it's not open to the general Second Life public. Culbertson tells Scientific American: "it would throw a monkey wrench into the whole thing if someone showed up in a dragon suit while we were doing an experiment."