Using virtual reality to support addiction recovery

Mason researchers are working with the Brightline Interactive to develop virtual reality simulations to examine the effects of recovery cues on neurophysiological regulation to prevent drug relapse. Image by Brightline Interactive

Can virtual reality help people with substance abuse issues avoid a relapse? A team of George Mason University researchers thinks it just might.

The multidisciplinary team, which includes faculty members Holly Matto, Padmanabhan Seshaiyer, Stephanie Carmack, and Nathalia Peixoto, and graduate student Matthew Scherbel, is working with Brightline Interactive to examine the effects of recovery cues, using virtual reality simulations, on neurophysiological regulation to prevent drug relapse.

The work is supported by a Small Business Technology Transfer grant from the National Institutes of Health. Brightline Interactive is a team of creative technologists that designs and builds virtual reality experiences, specializing in rapid development of custom end-to-end hardware/software solutions. These solutions use immersive virtual reality/augmented reality/extended reality technologies and techniques, such as motion, object, optical and facial tracking, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and sensor-integration, to allow for simulated utilization of physical objects in virtual reality environments for simulation and training purposes.

Matto is a social worker who worked with individuals in recovery from substance use before she became a university professor. She has used that practice experience to guide her research with diverse clinical populations.

“It’s my favorite population to work with,” said Matto, who is an associate professor in the Department of Social Work in the College of Health and Human Services.

Matto found that the first weeks in recovery are a tricky time for individuals in recovery, with a critical need for support to maintain their sobriety goals, especially when it comes to dealing with triggers, those sensory reminders of their substance use within their environment that might cause a relapse.

“It takes more than a strong commitment to be sober,” Matto says. “You may not be able to think your way through [when triggered].”

She said research shows that intensity of craving experience can still be quite high even after two months of abstinence. This led Matto to think about the importance of real-time interventions to support recovery when these individuals leave treatment.

“We are interested in understanding how we can disrupt the drug trigger-craving-relapse chain by using customized recovery cue substitutions—positive stimuli associated with recovery—to regulate the brain and body’s reaction to the people, places, objects and other daily stimuli that increase relapse risk for people in recovery,” she said.

The intervention the team is working on with Brightline involves virtual reality and having the person wearing the VR goggles interact with triggering objects while being able to assess their physiological response.

The team did some preliminary work this summer with students in Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program. One of their interns, Noah Egan, a 2020 Brentsville District High School graduate, taught himself how to use the game engine Unity in order to create what is very similar to a 3D video game in which a person would interact with an addiction trigger or cue.

“We have some new ideas that haven’t been used in social work before, which is the point of adding engineering to a community problem,” said Peixoto, an associate professor in the Volgenau School of Engineering who mentored Egan. “[This intervention] is a little bit more than game design and a little bit more than computer science, because we want to measure physiological variables.”

The Brightline-Mason team plans to build on this initial work and create an in-session interactive VR task that tracks the participant's gaze in order to understand where they are fixating attention on each recovery cue. From this data, the team can assess what imagery is particularly attractive to each participant and identify which cues cause a particular physiological reaction.

The results may lead to the development of a nonpharmacological mobile recovery support system to help individuals manage cravings and avoid relapse.

“I am really excited about this project, not only because it addresses such a critical issue, as we have seen increases in substance use during pandemic, but also because it represents an extraordinary collaboration among technology industry professionals, university faculty, community clinical care, and individuals in recovery,” said Rebekah Hersch, interim associate vice president for research and innovation at Mason. “As with nearly all complex problems, it takes a multidisciplinary team to tackle the problem and make a real difference in the lives of so many people.”