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Using Virtual Reality to Induce and Assess Objective Correlates of Nicotine Craving: Paradigm Development Study

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Craving is a clinically important phenotype for the development and maintenance of nicotine addiction. Virtual reality (VR) paradigms are successful in eliciting cue-induced subjective craving and may even elicit stronger craving than traditional picture-cue methods. However, few studies have leveraged the advances of this technology to improve the assessment of craving.


This report details the development of a novel, translatable VR paradigm designed to both elicit nicotine craving and assess multiple eye-related characteristics as potential objective correlates of craving.


A VR paradigm was developed, which includes three Active scenes with nicotine and tobacco product (NTP) cues present, and three Neutral scenes devoid of NTP cues. A pilot sample (N=31) of NTP users underwent the paradigm and completed subjective measures of nicotine craving, sense of presence in the VR paradigm, and VR-related sickness. Eye-gaze fixation time ("attentional bias") and pupil diameter toward Active versus Neutral cues, as well as spontaneous blink rate during the Active and Neutral scenes, were recorded.


The NTP Cue VR paradigm was found to elicit a moderate sense of presence (mean Igroup Presence Questionnaire score 60.05, SD 9.66) and low VR-related sickness (mean Virtual Reality Sickness Questionnaire score 16.25, SD 13.94). Scene-specific effects on attentional bias and pupil diameter were observed, with two of the three Active scenes eliciting greater NTP versus control cue attentional bias and pupil diameter (Cohen d=0.30-0.92). The spontaneous blink rate metrics did not differ across Active and Neutral scenes.


This report outlines the development of the NTP Cue VR paradigm. Our results support the potential of this paradigm as an effective laboratory-based cue-exposure task and provide early evidence of the utility of attentional bias and pupillometry, as measured during VR, as useful markers for nicotine addiction.

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