IU researchers work to help those in recovery through virtual reality

INDIANAPOLIS — Researchers at IU School of Medicine are pressing ahead with technology they hope will help people recover from substance use disorder.

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

“For someone in the grip of addiction, especially in the later stages, the time horizon becomes really focused on the present,” Dr. Brandon Oberlin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine, said. “What that does is it creates decision-making that is only conducive to the current situation. This is not an adaptive strategy for modern humans and is a hallmark of addiction in many ways.”

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

“This is one of the strengths of VR,” Oberlin said, “is that it allows you to do the impossible. We can travel through time, interact with copies of ourselves. We can make ourselves say things we never said, which can be therapeutically beneficial.”

Brand and Avatar

Introduction / Andrew Nelson

Dr. Brandon Oberlin (right) and his avatar

“People often call virtual reality the empathy engine… Once you have that sense of being in a virtual world, you kind of lose a lot of your mental blocks that separate you from things,”
said Andrew Nelson, CEO of Indianapolis-based Half Full Nelson Virtual Reality.

read: Study and experimental results of virtual reality

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

“It definitely made a difference…I actually see myself in the situation where I needed to change,” Thomas said. “It gave me an option to see myself in a future time where I would be if I continued and where I would be if I successfully recovered. From that experience I chose to have a successful recovery; I chose to get back the things in my life that I needed that would make me successful.”

He struggled with substance abuse addiction for 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 has twins on the way.

Jacob Thomas

Introduction / Jacob Thomas

Jacob Thomas with his wife and daughter

“In earlier times, although I knew drug use might be a problem not only for me, but for others, I didn’t actually associate it with it being a problem for me, maybe just a problem I could get rid of,” Thomas said. “But after doing the study, it allowed me to be able to see myself on the side of how it affected me and what I need to change.”

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

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Introduction / Jacob Thomas

Jacob Thomas with his brothers Jeremy and Joshua

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

“I think there is a huge role for virtual reality, especially in mental health applications, not just addiction,” Oberlin said. “I’d like to see anything move the needle.”

In the past five months, the Oberlin team has received more than $4.9 million to advance their work. The grants will support clinical trials designed to test effectiveness in relapse prevention, brain activation, and other components of substance use disorder treatment, Oberlin said.

For example, one study will provide remote virtual reality experiences via wireless headphones for participants to use at home, as providing remote mental health interventions addresses an urgent need for people who are unable or unwilling to engage in a personal clinical environment.

There are also plans for future clinical trials.

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

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

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