Santa Cruz agency starts pilot study of VR drug treatment

[From San Jose (California) Mercury News]

Santa Cruz agency starts pilot study of virtual reality drug treatment

By Cathy Kelly

SANTA CRUZ — Drug addiction counselors usually frown on patients dipping into alternate “realities,” but a Santa Cruz non-profit agency this week will become what a researcher says is the first clinic to use a virtual reality system to treat drug addiction.

A pilot study treating addicts of heroin and other opiate derivatives will be conducted at Janus of Santa Cruz. The technology was featured at a Tuesday conference organized by the agency. The third annual substance abuse conference drew nearly 150 people to Holy Cross Hall.

The virtual system allows patients to do things like walk through a faux party online and practice declining an offer of drugs or have a counselor pose as a person who brings up pain sufficient to induce the need to seek solace through drugs, said Ivana Steigman, director of clinical design and research at Palo Alto-based InWorld Solutions.

The InWorld virtual system immerses users in an array of custom worlds, a home or park for example, and hopefully more specific areas such as downtown Santa Cruz later, she said.

Such immersion brings real physical and emotional reactions, she added, while cautioning it is not a cure-all.

Yet it can facilitate counseling by using online situations it would be unsafe to visit in reality, she said.

And virtual reality also seems to elicit candor about tough topics more quickly, Steigman added.

“It lowers emotional barriers somehow; we are still researching why,” she said, adding that perhaps it’s the face-to-face situation that make confessions hard for some. “…It is one possible way of maybe easing the pain.” Similar systems have successfully treated victims of trauma and abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, she said, but Janus is the first addiction clinic in the world to try it.

It was chosen after Steigman met Janus counselor David Molina, said Cecilia Krebs, who directs Janus Community Clinic, a 300-patient methadone clinic.

Krebs said she is glad that connection was made, and that it was “exciting to be on the cutting edge of treatment protocol.” Bill Manov, director of the county’s drug and alcohol program, said it was too soon to tell how it will work, but that it could help some people feel more comfortable making disclosures and could appeal to younger clients raised with computers and those who live far from treatment centers.

Studies on telephone counseling show that it is pretty effective and it could supplement that,” he said. “But it’s never going to replace face-to-face counseling.” The InWorld-funded study will include six patients in an eight-week program who will navigate two scenarios weekly. The company hopes to expand the system to treat addiction to other substances.

ISPR Presence News

Search ISPR Presence News: