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Quit Smoking with Virtual Reality
Scientists at the University of Siegen are developing a virtual reality application to help smokers overcome their addictions.
More than a quarter of the
population in Germany smokes. Tobacco is more popular and more
widespread than any other drug. At the same time, it is
regarded one of the most dangerous drugs in Germany: it is
estimated that every year more than 5 million smokers die as a
result of their nicotine addiction. Researchers at the
University of Siegen's Research College (FoKoS) are now
breaking new ground to help those affected overcome their
addiction. In the ANTARES research project, they are developing
a virtual reality application that smokers can use to learn to
resist the urge to smoke.
Using virtual reality glasses, the participants immerse themselves in a virtual, artificial world during therapy. They are shown various objects there, some of which are related to smoking, such as a lighter, an ashtray or even a cigarette - and others that have nothing to do with smoking, such as a flower or a toothbrush. With a joystick, the smokers now have to move the nicotine-related objects away from them in a similar manner like in a computer game, optically reducing their size, while pulling the other objects towards them and thus increasing their size.
Research therapy effects through virtual reality
"From previous studies, we already know that such computer training - also known as 'approach avoidance training' - can have a minor effect on smoking," says psychology professor Dr. Tim Klucken from the project team. As part of ANTARES, he and his colleagues now want to find out if the impact of virtual reality training can be increased. "With the help of Virtual Reality glasses you dive completely into another world. The emotional level is therefore much more addressed than sitting in front of the classic desktop computer. However, many potentials for strengthening therapy effects through virtual reality have not yet been sufficiently researched, "says FoKoS Director Prof. Dr. med. Dr. Björn Niehaves, who is also involved in the project with his research team.
Unlike many conventional nicotine therapies, the new form of therapy aims not only at the so-called reflexive system in humans, but at the impulsive, emotional system. So it's not just about becoming aware of rational arguments about why it would be better to quit smoking. In addition, the participants should also learn to better control the impulse to smoke. "With addictions, the impulsive system is much more important than the reflexive one," explains psychology professor Klucken. "People suddenly reach for their cigarette in a very impulsive manner, for example because they have been struggling or arguing."
Training is also possible via smartphone app
From the point of view of the scientists from Siegen, a combination of "conventional" therapeutic procedures and virtual reality therapy would be ideal. "Taken by itself, our application is certainly not a miracle weapon. But in combination with well-known smoking programs, it could help smokers to better treat their addiction, "hopes Klucken. In addition to the virtual reality application, he and his colleagues are also developing a smartphone app based on approach-avoidance training. If necessary, users can apply the therapy at any time in everyday life and at different locations.
Currently, the scientists are in the process of programming different variants of virtual reality training. This part of the project is handled by the Department of Medical Informatics and Microsysteme Design headed by Prof. Dr. Rainer Brück. In the next step, Prof. Niehaves and his team will examine which version is best accepted by the users. This version will then be used to conduct and evaluate the training with smokers. The Kreisklinikum Siegen is also involved in this practical test phase. Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Carl Friedrich Gethmann accompanies the entire project from an ethical point of view.
The project ANTARES ("Broad-Impact Substance-Dependence Therapy in the Digital Society Using Virtual Reality-Based Systems") is an interdisciplinary research project at the Research College (FoKoS) of the University of Siegen. It runs until January 2021 and is funded by the Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia with over 400,000 euros.
Currently, smokers who want to participate in the practical part of the study (Virtual Reality Training) are still being sought. Participation is open to men and women between the ages of 18 and 65 who have been smoking for at least six months and are consuming at least six cigarettes a day. You can contact us by e-mail at email@example.com. Contact person is Alla Machulska from the Department of Clinical Psychology of the University of Siegen.