Substance use disorders form from repetitive over stimulation of reward circuitry in the brain. During the process of developing SUD, the brain associates environmental cues, present during drug exposure, with the intake of the drug. These cues then begin to trigger strong drug cravings on their own, even when the drug is not present. It is these cravings that can put the individual in a strong drug seeking state which can ultimately lead to relapse.
By exposing the individual with SUD to these environmental triggers in virtual environments, without getting the reward of the drug, their brain will un-learn the associations between environmental cues and drug exposure. Also, they change the way their brain responds to the stress of drug triggers and cravings. For example, SUDs are driven by more instinctual, lower brain processes in the limbic system; however, exposure therapy returns regulation to the prefrontal cortex, allowing the individual to be more capable of inhibiting and minimizing the effects of environmental triggers. This decrease in drug cravings makes them better equipped for overcoming SUD and discovering long term sobriety.