IU researchers working to help those in recovery through virtual reality

INDIANAPOLIS – Researchers at the IU School of Medicine are moving forward with technology they hope can help people recover from substance abuse.

The virtual reality experience uses virtual avatars that resemble participants. They can also talk. The goal is to show those in recovery what their future could look like.

“For a person in the age of addiction, especially the later stages, the horizon focuses more on the present,” said Dr. Brandon Oberlin, assistant professor of psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine, said Dr. “What you are doing is creating decisions that favor the status quo. This is not a flexible strategy for today’s people and is a sign of addiction in many ways.”

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

“That’s another power of virtual reality that allows you to do the impossible,” Oberlin said. “We can travel through time, interact with our versions. We can say things we’ve never said before, which can be helpful therapeutically.”

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BRANDON AND THE AVATAR

Provided by/Andrew Nelson

Dr. Brandon Oberlin (right) and his photo

“People often call virtual reality the empathy engine … when you’re in that mindset of being in a virtual world, you lose a lot of your sense of what separates you from things,”
Andrew Nelson, CEO of Indianapolis-based virtual reality startup Half Full Nelson, said.

READ: Experimental VR research and findings

Jacob Thomas was hired to be part of the experience 18 months ago. It was the first time in any kind of virtual reality.

“It definitely made a difference … seeing myself in a situation that I needed to change,” Thomas said. “It gave me the opportunity to see myself in the future of where I will be if I continue and where I will be if I recover successfully. From that experience I chose to recover successfully; I chose to restore things in my life that I needed that would make me successful.”

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

Jacob Thomas

Provided by/Jacob Thomas

Jacob Thomas and his wife and daughter

“In the past, although I knew that drug abuse could be a problem not only for me, but also for others, I never considered that it was a problem for me, maybe it was just a problem that I could get rid of,” said Thomas. But after doing the course, it allowed me to see myself in the situation of how it affected me and what I needed to change.

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

jacob thomas and brothers.png

Provided by/Jacob Thomas

Jacob Thomas and his brothers Jereme and Joshua

Now he wants to live a sober life to honor them and hopefully inspire others.

“I think there’s a big role for vr, especially in mental health-type applications, not just addiction,” Oberlin said. “I’d like to see anything that moves the needle.”

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Over the past five months, the Oberlin team has been awarded more than $4.9 million to advance its work. The grants will support clinical trials designed to test effectiveness in relapse prevention, brain function and other aspects related to substance abuse treatment, Oberlin said.

For example, one study will deliver a virtual reality experience remotely using 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.

There are also plans for future health screenings.

“We could not and cannot make claims about the success 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 tested. We think it’s valuable, and it’s innovative.”

Oberlin has also applied for worldwide patent protection for the technology.



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