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

November 03, 2022

New life-sized VR avatars are using imagined realities to help treat substance use disorders.

Illustration courtesy Andrew Nelson

These avatars are fully animated and nearly photo-realistic.

People can converse with their avatars, who speak in 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 wide use in substance use disorders intervention or recovery,” says research leader Brandon Oberlin, an Assistant Professor of psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

“Capitalizing on VR’s ability to deliver an immersive experience showing otherwise-impossible scenarios, we created a way for people to interact with different versions of their future selves in the context of substance use and recovery.”

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

Their findings suggest that virtual reality simulation of imagined realities can aid substance use disorder recovery by lowering the risk of relapse rates and increasing participants’ future self-connectedness.

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

Image: Eric Hanus, Indiana University

Image: Eric Hanus, Indiana University

“We believe this could be a revolutionary intervention for early substance use disorders recovery, with perhaps even further-reaching mental health applications.”

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

“The ultimate goal of our work is to leverage state-of-the-art VR technology for providing therapeutic experiences to support early recovery – a very dangerous time period marked by a high risk for relapse,” Oberlin says.

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

New grants to advance the work will support clinical trials designed to test for efficacy on relapse prevention, brain activation, and other important elements related to substance use disorder treatment, Oberlin says.

For example, one study will deliver virtual reality experiences remotely via wireless headsets for participants to use at home, as the remote delivery of mental health interventions addresses a pressing need for people unable or unwilling to engage in an in-person clinical setting.

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