– Meeting your future self in VR can help you recover from substance abuse

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November 03, 2022

New life-size VR avatars use imaginary realities to help treat substance use disorders.

Illustration courtesy of Andrew Nelson

Illustration courtesy of Andrew Nelson

These avatars are fully animated and almost photo-realistic.

People can converse with their avatars, who speak with the same voice using personal details in alternate futures.

“VR 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 a broad use in the intervention or recovery of substance use disorders,” says lead researcher Brandon Oberlin, assistant professor of psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine.

“By capitalizing on the ability of virtual reality to deliver an immersive experience showing otherwise impossible scenarios, we have created a way for people to interact with different versions of their future in the context of substance use and recovery. .”

After four years of development and testing in collaboration with Indianapolis-based treatment centers, the pilot study by Oberlin and his colleagues appears in Discover Mental Health.

Their findings suggest that VR simulation of imaginary realities can aid recovery from substance use disorders by reducing the risk of relapse rates and increasing participants’ future connection to self.

“This experience allows people in recovery to have a personalized virtual experience, in alternate futures resulting from the choices they have made,” says Oberlin.

Image: Eric Hanus, Indiana University

Image: Eric Hanus, Indiana University

“We believe this could be a breakthrough intervention for early recovery from substance use disorders, with perhaps even broader mental health applications.”

The technology is particularly well suited to people in early recovery – a crucial time because the risk of relapse is high – as immersive experiences can help them choose long-term rewards over immediate gratification by deepening connections with their future, he says. .

“The ultimate goal of our work is to leverage cutting-edge VR technology to provide therapeutic experiences to support early recovery – a very dangerous time marked by a high risk of relapse,” Oberlin said.

“Last year marked another grim annual record for drug overdose deaths in the United States, with more than 100,000 estimated deaths. New innovations in treatment and recovery are desperately needed…”

New grants to advance work will support clinical trials designed to test the effectiveness of relapse prevention, brain activation and other important elements related to the treatment of substance use disorders, said Oberlin.

For example, one study will provide remote virtual reality experiences via wireless headsets that participants can use at home, as remote delivery of mental health interventions fills a pressing need for people who cannot or do not want to engage in an in-person clinical setting.

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