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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Academics & Research

Virtual reality cures real world craving



In the virtual environment (above), recovering addicts are submerged into real world situations such as party. | Photo courtesy of Patrick Bordnick

Using tools from the virtual world to tackle real world substance abuse, UH Associate Dean of Research and Director of the Virtual Reality Clinical Research Lab Patrick Bordnick and his team are submerging patients into virtual situations to explore the triggers for their substance abuse.

By taking users out of the typical counseling environment, researchers are able to stimulate four of the five senses, creating seemingly realistic situations.

“Generally when we do encounter someone dealing with substance abuse, we would bring someone into a lab room and show them pictures of alcohol and ask what their craving levels are,” Bordnick said. “We presented them with cues in the lab setting, we would surround them with people they are use to using with and we saw fairly nice results.”

As Bordnick continued this line of research within labs and other settings the results continued to come in, the research felt tainted to Bordnick.

“Something always bothered me. I kept thinking, ‘We’re in a in a clinical lab, you don’t smoke marijuana in a lab room, you don’t drink in a lab room, you don’t shoot heroin in a lab room,’” Bordnick said. “ The environment was incongruent with use.”

“We have been able to construct a scent machine that produces smell, so when you walk up to the virtual bar to order a Scotch you actually smell a Scotch.”  Patrick Bordnick

Starting his work at the University of Georgia, Bordnick is one of the nations leading virtual substance abuse counselors and brings his groundbreaking line of research to UH.

“I began to wonder, could we start a virtual party in order to submerge the users in a situation that would trigger them to use, but still be in control of the setting,” Bordnick said. “We created a world where you see people smoking and drinking, and that would give you that environmental cue so I could study craving on a different level.”

Throughout all of this research and results, Bordnick admits that virtual reality is not a substitute for a good behavioral therapist, but can serve as a helpful supplement to traditional treatments.

“Virtual reality is just a tool that therapists can have to help cure substance abuse,” Bordnick said. “They teach skills through virtual reality by allowing us to put that person in the environment with all the replace triggers one might find in the normal environments that would cause them to use.”

As this line of research continues to grow, opportunities for UH graduate students to participate in this work increases as well. With Bordnick’s research building on campus, opportunities for graduate students like Maria Willis continue to grow.

tx setting

The lab is capable of triggering all five human senses using their technology | Photo courtesy of Patrick Bordnick

“This research is groundbreaking in the way that we can see how people respond to being in that virtual world filled with triggers that cause users to use,” Willis said. “By putting individuals face-to-face with these triggers we are strengthening them whenever they are in the real world and have to block out those triggers.”

Although the usual triggers to use are things such as the sighting of a beer or the feel of a night out on the town, Bordnick has configured technology to incorporate the aspect of scent into the virtual simulation.

“We have been able to construct a scent machine that produces smell, so when you walk up to the virtual bar to order a Scotch you actually smell a Scotch,” Dr. Bordnick said. “This was developed in my lab. Most people don’t realize that scent is a huge trigger for memory. If you were to ask me what I think when I smell the scent of bacon cooking, I am literally transported back to my great grandmother’s kitchen, and I am a five-year-old boy remembering the cast iron skillet that it was cooked in. So in the lab, this feature allows us to help individuals respond to this trigger in a healthy way.”

Scent is not the only way Bordnick evokes responses from patients that use this virtual therapy; he is able to incorporate visual, audio, and tactile all in one virtual situation.

“In the virtual world you would be sitting here as if you were in a bar, you look up the ceiling, the floor, and all around you is different, and you would be an aviator,”  Bordnick said. “So there you get your visual, and you can engage in conversations so you get the audio, and through vibrations you can get the tactile sense incorporated as well.”

Beginning with nicotine usage, Bordnick has been able to widen the range of substances he is able to explore through virtual reality and plans to eventually make the leap to decode the root of heroin usage.

“When I began with cigarette usage, I always thought (about) what more could we get out of this and now we look at marijuana usages, alcohol consumption and other drugs,” Bordnick said. “Currently, we’re preparing to look at heroin cravings through injection, and non-injection usage to look at the cravings as well as the usage to see if there is a way to stop heroin usages.”

As the future of virtual reality continues to grow, the functions for virtual reality do as well.

“Working in this research helps us figure out where we need to bridge the gaps outside of this research,” Willis said. “In the medical environment, substance abuse, and other environments this line of research continues to be used for more than just this.”

Virtual reality provides the ability to train and prepare participants not only to reject the triggers of usage but also to help prepare them for situations that are not drug related.

“PTSD, anxiety disorder, anything that has a training or teaching aspect to it virtual reality can be used to help,” Bordnick said. “If you were in school to become a teacher and you had to present a lecture for a course. If you wanted to prepare, you would have to get thirty people at one time to volunteer and find the space, but with virtual reality we can drop you in that world and get to as close of a realistic situation as you can get.”

Bordnick’s goal for the future of virtual reality is to see virtual reality used to help cure craving and to help train individuals through different applications to individuals interested. This research continues on grant-based funding, but through advances in this line of research, virtual reality plans to be used regularly in the future.

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