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IU researchers working to help those in recovery through virtual reality

jacob thomas vr.PNG
Posted at 3:31 PM, Nov 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-14 12:33:20-05

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

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

"For somebody who's in the grip of addiction, especially the late stages, the time horizon becomes focused really toward the present," Dr. Brandon Oberlin, an assistant professor of psychiatry with the IU School of Medicine, said. "What that does is it creates decision making that only favors the present condition. This is not an adaptive strategy for modern humans and it is a hallmark of addictions in many ways."

Oberlin and his team have worked on the technology for the last four years.

“That’s one of the strengths of virtual reality is allowing you to do the impossible," Oberlin said. "We can time travel, we interact with versions of ourself. We can have ourself say things that we never said, which can be therapeutically useful."

Dr. Brandon Oberlin (right) and his avatar

"People often call virtual reality the empathy engine ... 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 Indianapolis-based virtual reality startup Half Full Nelson, said.

READ: VR pilot study and findings

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

"It definitely has made a difference ... actually seeing myself in the condition that I needed to change," Thomas said. "It gave me an option of seeing myself in a future tense of 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 recover the things in my life that I needed that would make me successful."

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

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Jacob Thomas with his wife and daughter

"In previous times even though I knew substance abuse might have been a problem not only for myself, but for others, I never associated it actually being a problem for me, maybe just an issue that I could get rid of," Thomas said. "But after doing the study, it allowed me to be able 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 overdoses.

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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 there's a huge role for vr, especially in mental health type applications, not just addictions," Oberlin said. "I would like to see anything that moves the needle."

In the past five months, Oberlin's team was awarded more than $4.9 million to advance their work. The grants will support clinical trials designed to test for efficacy on relapse prevention, brain activation and other elements related to substance use disorder treatment, Oberlin said.

For example, one study will deliver virtual reality experiences remotely via 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 clinical trials.

"We didn't nor can we make any claims 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've got something promising that needs to be explored. We think it's valuable, and it's certainly innovative."

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