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An unexpected use of virtual reality is using it to treat addition. The combination between technology and psychology is not a new one but as humanity keeps developing it is one that will only become more common as time goes on. Now, researchers at Indiana University, USA, are combining psychological principles with innovative virtual reality technology to create a new immersive therapy for people with substance use disorders.

The researchers have built a virtual environment using “future-self avatars” to help people recover from substance use disorders. These avatars are life-sized, fully animated and nearly photo realistic. People can converse with their avatars, who speak in their 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,” said Brandon Oberlin, assistant professor of psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine and the head of the project. “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.”

“This experience enables people in recovery to have a personalized virtual experience, in alternate futures resulting from the choices they made,” Oberlin said. “We believe this could be a revolutionary intervention for early substance use disorders recovery, with perhaps even further-reaching mental health applications.”

According to research.impact.iu.edu, Oberlin emphasizes that this 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.

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