Rationale: Environmental enrichment (EE) is a non-pharmacological approach that has been shown to be effective in reducing food-taking in rats. Studies in human volunteers are still in their infancy, given the difficulty to translate the complexity of EE in clinical practice. Virtual reality (VR) is a promising methodological approach, but no study has yet applied it to model and test EE in humans. Objectives: The present study is the first to assess the effects of virtual EE on craving for palatable food. Methods: Eighty-one healthy volunteers (43 women) were divided into three groups: (i) exposure to a virtual EE (VR-EE), (ii) exposure to a virtual neutral environment (VR-NoEE), and (iii) without exposure to VR (No VR). Craving for palatable food at basal level and evoked by neutral and palatable food images was assessed before and after the VR simulation. Behavior during VR exposure and subjective measures related to the experience were also collected. Results: VR-EE group showed a significantly greater decrease in pre-post craving difference compared to No VR for all assessments and at basal level compared to VR-NoEE. Interestingly, an inverse correlation between craving and deambulation in the VR simulation emerged in VR-EE group only. Conclusions: The study highlighted the feasibility of exposing human subjects to an EE as a virtual simulation. Virtual EE induced effects on basal craving for food that suggest the potential for further improvements of the protocol to extend its efficacy to palatable food cues.
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