October 26, 2022 - Podcast

Episode 317 — Leveraging virtual reality for substance use recovery

Indiana University researchers are combining psychological principles with innovative virtual reality technology to create a new immersive therapy for people with substance use disorders. They've recently received over $4.9 million from the National Institutes of Health and launched an IU-affiliated startup company to test and further develop the technology. Led by Brandon Oberlin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine, researchers have built a virtual environment using "future-self avatars" to help people recover from substance use disorders. These avatars are life-sized, fully animated and nearly photo realistic. People can converse with their avatars, who speak in their same voice using personal details in alternate futures. Oberlin says virtual reality technology is clinically effective and increasingly common for treating a variety of mental health conditions, such as phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and post-operative pain, but has yet to find wide use in substance use disorders intervention or recovery. Capitalizing on the technology’s ability to deliver an immersive experience showing otherwise-impossible scenarios, he says they created a way for people to interact with different versions of their future selves in the context of substance use and recovery. After four years of development and testing in collaboration with Indianapolis-based treatment centers, Oberlin and his colleagues' pilot study was published Sept. 15 in Discover Mental Health. Their findings suggest that virtual reality simulation of imagined realities can aid substance use disorder recovery by lowering the risk of relapse rates and increasing participants' future self-connectedness. Oberlin says this enables people in recovery to have a personalized virtual experience, in alternate futures resulting from the choices they made. The technology is particularly well-suited for people in early recovery—a crucial time as there is a high risk for relapse—because the immersive experiences can help them choose long-term rewards over immediate gratification by deepening connections to their future selves. In the past five months, Oberlin's team was awarded more than $4.9 million from the National Institute of Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, including an over $300,000 Small Business Technology Transfer Phase I research grant, to advance their work. The grants will support clinical trials designed to test for efficacy on relapse prevention, brain activation and other important elements related to substance use disorder treatment. For example, Oberlin says one study will deliver virtual reality experiences remotely via wireless headsets for participants to use at home, as remote delivery of mental health interventions addresses a pressing need for people unable or unwilling to engage in an in-person clinical setting. Oberlin says researchers’ ultimate goal is to leverage state-of-the-art virtual reality technology for providing therapeutic experiences to support early recovery.