As you walk into the room, the first thing you notice are the empty beer bottles, syringes and cigarette butts on the table. That's just before you take in the smoke-stained walls and spot two people sitting on the bed, shooting up. You either took a very wrong turn in a bad part of town — or you're in the Meth-Apartment, a virtual-reality drug den that's being used to help addicts overcome their dependence.

Comfortably numb: the inhabitants of the virtual drug den. Credit: C. CULBERTSON/UCLA

Christopher Culbertson, a PhD student from the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues designed the virtual-reality environment to help them test treatments for the cravings experienced by people addicted to methamphetamines. Stop the cravings, goes the theory, and it might help stop drug use.

The trouble with studying such treatments is that researchers have to induce cravings in the lab before trying out the therapies. Current ways of doing this involve getting addicted people into the clinic and playing them videos of people using drugs, or showing them drug paraphernalia. But neither of these methods is very effective at inducing cravings.

Full immersion

The virtual drug den can spark cravings in addicts. Credit: C. CULBERTSON/UCLA

The team wondered if a more realistic environment would help. And in research presented at the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, this week, they show that a virtual drug den is more effective than the video-based set-up at making addicts crave drugs.

"We could create a fully immersive environment in which addicts are not only in a realistic context, seeing others using, with pipes and whatnot strewn about, but they could also interact," says Culbertson.

"Want a hit?"

To design the apartment, the team gleaned information from addicts on the kind of environments in which they used drugs, and mocked up the den in Second Life, a virtual world on the Internet. "We went into where I used to live, made it look like a methamphetamine apartment, then took pictures. Then we went into Second Life and recreated a model," Culbertson says.

The seedy side of Second Life. Credit: C. CULBERTSON/UCLA

Next they designed characters to inhabit the flat, programming them with predetermined movement patterns and phrases like "Want a hit?". When the apartment was tested with drug users (who were not seeking treatment for their addiction), they reported significantly stronger cravings than they did when watching videos of people using drugs.

Virtual-reality experiments have been used before to help study and treat phobias or paranoia1, for example. But the next step, says Culbertson, is to use the interactive properties of Second Life to allow users to mingle with each other virtually in monitored, password-protected rooms — and even to use the environment for group therapy, or to learn coping skills.