IU researchers work to help recovering people through virtual reality

IU researchers work to help recovering people through virtual reality

INDIANAPOLIS — Researchers at the IU School of Medicine are advancing with technology they hope can help people recover from substance use disorder.

The virtual reality experience uses realistic avatars that resemble the participants. They are also able to speak. The goal is to show those in recovery what their future might look like.

“For someone who is in the grip of addiction, especially in the later stages, the time horizon is really focused on the present,” said Dr. Brandon Oberlin, assistant professor of psychiatry at the IU School of Medical. “What this does is create decision-making that only favors the current condition. This is not an adaptive strategy for modern humans and it is a feature of addictions in many ways.”

Oberlin and his team have been working on the technology for the past four years.

“It’s one of the strengths of virtual reality that lets you do the impossible,” Oberlin said. “We can travel through time, we interact with versions of ourselves. We can be told things we’ve never said, which can be therapeutically helpful.”


Supplied/Andrew Nelson

Dr. Brandon Oberlin (right) and his avatar

“People often call virtual reality the engine of empathy…once you’re in that sense of presence in a virtual world, you kind of lose a lot of your mental blocks that separate you from things,”
Andrew Nelson, CEO of Half Full Nelson, an Indianapolis-based virtual reality startup, said.

LILY: VR pilot study and results

Jacob Thomas was recruited to be part of the experiment 18 months ago. It was his first time in any type of virtual reality.

“It definitely made a difference… seeing me in the state that I needed to change,” Thomas said. “It gave me the ability to see myself in a future time where I would be if I continued and where I would be if I had a successful recovery. From that experience, I chose to have a successful recovery; I chose to reclaim the things in my life that I needed and that would make me successful.”

He struggled with drug addiction for about 12 years and had issues with family members. Thomas is now married and the father of a daughter whom he sees every day. The couple now have twins on the way.

jacob thomas

Supplied/Jacob Thomas

Jacob Thomas with his wife and daughter

“Before, even though I knew that drug addiction could be a problem not only for me, but for others, I never associated it with a problem for me, maybe just a problem that I could get rid of”, Thomas said. “But after doing the study, it allowed me to see myself in the aspect of how it affected me and what I needed to change.”

Last year, Thomas lost two of his brothers, Jereme and Joshua, to drug overdoses.

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Supplied/Jacob Thomas

Jacob Thomas with his brothers Jereme and Joshua

He now wants to live a life of sobriety to honor them and hopefully inspire others.

“I think VR has a huge role, especially in mental health-type applications, not just addictions,” Oberlin said. “I’d like to see anything that moves the needle.”

Over the past five months, the Oberlin team has received over $4.9 million to advance their work. The grants will support clinical trials designed to test the effectiveness of relapse prevention, brain activation and other elements related to the treatment of substance use disorders, Oberlin said.

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

There are also plans for future clinical trials.

“We have not made and cannot make any representations about the effectiveness of our intervention in the pilot,” Oberlin said. “Without a control group…we can’t really make any claims. We think we have something promising that needs to be explored. We think it’s valuable, and it’s certainly innovative.”

Oberlin has also applied for international patent protection on the technology.

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