Cigarette craving in virtual reality cue exposure in abstainers and relapsed smokers


Abstract Cue exposure therapy (CET) in substance-use disorders aims to reduce craving and ultimately relapse rates. Applying CET in virtual reality (VR) was proposed to increase its efficacy, as VR enables the presentation of social and environmental cues along with substance-related stimuli. However, limited success has been reported so far when applying VR-CET for smoking cessation. Understanding if effects of VR-CET differ between future abstainers and relapsing smokers may help to improve VR-CET. Data from 102 participants allocated to the intervention arm (VR-CET) of a recent RCT comparing VR-CET to relaxation in the context of smoking cessation was analyzed with respect to tolerability, presence, and craving during VR-CET. Cue exposure was conducted in four VR contexts (Loneliness/Rumination, Party, Stress, Café), each presented twice. Relapsed smokers compared to abstainers experienced higher craving during VR-CET and stronger craving responses especially during the Stress scenario. Furthermore, lower mean craving during VR-CET positively predicted abstinence at 6-month follow-up. Attempts to improve smoking cessation outcomes of VR-CET should aim to identify smokers who are more at risk of relapse based on high craving levels during VR-CET. Specifically measuring craving responses during social stress seems to be well suited to mark relapse. We propose to investigate individualized treatment approaches accordingly.

Scientific Reports