UI researcher creates virtual reality experiences to aid recovery from substance use disorders

UI researcher creates virtual reality experiences to aid recovery from substance use disorders

Avatar of the future

image: An illustration showing what a “future self” looks like in Brandon Oberlin’s project. On the left, the avatar of Oberlin, on the right, a photo of Oberlin.
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Credit: Illustration courtesy of Andrew Nelson

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 recently received more than $4.9 million from the National Institutes of Health and launched an IU-affiliated startup to test and further develop the technology.

Led by Brandon Oberlin, assistant professor of psychiatry at IU School of Medicine, IU researchers have built a virtual environment using “avatars of the future” to help people recover from disorders related to substance use. These avatars are life-size, fully animated and almost 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 wide use in intervention or recovery from substance use disorders,” Oberlin said. “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 colleagues was published September 15 in Learn about 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,” Oberlin said. “We believe this could be a breakthrough intervention for early recovery from substance use disorders, with perhaps even further 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 said. .

Over the past five months, the Oberlin team has received more than $4.9 million from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), federal research institutes under the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including a $319,542 Small Business Technology Transfer Phase I Research Grant, to advance their work.

The grants 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, Oberlin said. 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 cannot do not want to engage in an in-person clinical setting.

“The ultimate goal of our work is to leverage advanced virtual reality 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, and we hope efforts UI’s innovative research solutions will answer that call.”

With support from IU’s Office of Innovation and Commercialization, Oberlin filed for international patent protection on the technology earlier this year.

He also co-founded a new IU-affiliated startup called Relate XR, LLC, with Andrew Nelson, an IU alumnus and CEO of Half Full Nelson, an Indianapolis-based virtual reality startup, to advance the development of the technology and its commercial potential.

“Brandon’s technology is a unique approach to treating mental health issues like substance use disorders, which have been a long-term challenge to individual well-being and societal health,” said Simran Trana, associate vice president of IU Innovation and Commercialization. Desk. “We look forward to working with his team to develop and deploy this technology through Relate XR by leveraging translational small business innovation research funds and mobilizing additional investment.”

Other authors of the pilot study include Nelson and Yitong Iris Shen, an IUPUI graduate student in the Oberlin lab. The initial project was funded by the IU School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.

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