Virtual reality (VR) is frequently used for immersive gaming, but it also is being used to assist people make healthier lifestyle choices. BehaVR (pronounced “behavior”), a Kentucky-based VR startup, has just launched a pilot study of their VR smoking cessation program with the University of Louisville.

I recently spoke with Aaron Gani, the founder of BehaVR, about his vision for VR in healthcare. He hopes to help patients activate healthy behavioral changes via a multi-disciplinary approach which includes VR. BehaVR’s program is not meant to replace traditional therapists and clinicians but assists with an additional intervention, in this case immersive VR. They currently use the Oculus Rift platform but plan to expand to other platforms including mobile VR in the near future. The smoking cessation experience involves a virtual clinic with education (guided by an avatar), visualizations (virtual trips through a body wracked by tobacco use), and immersive clinical videos.

Additionally, the platform incorporates personalization features allowing clinicians to adjust the scenarios based on user input and background history. As mentioned, BeHaVR is currently involved in a pilot study of the VR experience effectiveness with the University of Louisville.

Other targets for intervention that BehaVR plans to address include obesity and opioid addiction, as well as procedural pain management. They also plan to tackle the role of kinesiophobia in back pain, helping aid patients working with physical therapists. A component of mindfulness, focusing on an awareness of the present, is included in the smoking cessation intervention and will likely play a role in other BeHaVR applications.

Utilizing VR for smoking cessation is not an entirely new concept although the data on this intervention is still limited. A French protocol for investigating preventing relapse after smoking cessation using VR was published last year, although the state of the 14-month controlled trial described in it is currently unknown. The journal of Nicotine Tobacco Research published a 2016 meta-analysis noting the efficacy in using VR to generate cue-specific cravings for cigarettes (and thus a potential target for intervention). A 2012 case report documented the use of a Virtual Stop Smoking program (VSS) in treating a patient who went from 20 cigarettes to 0 per day. The program consisted of VR graded exposure therapy to reduce cravings as well as education on harmful effects of tobacco.

This evidence base will likely continue to expand with the growing interest in the latest immersive VR technology and the use of it for meaningful behavioral change.