The Salon Interviews: The Use of Virtual Reality in Addiction Medicine

One of the Salon demonstrations at this year’s Medicine Meets Virtual Reality 17 conference is the demonstration of Chris Culbertson (Neuroscience Ph.D. student) who will present how virtual reality can be used in addiction medicine:

1) Please tell us more about the “Use of VR in Addiction Medicine” demonstration you will present at this year’s MMVR conference.

The demonstration presented in the Salon portion of MMVR17 will allow attendees to observe and interact within the virtual world we have created using Second Life. Participants will be able to freely navigate through the environment and interact with drug paraphernalia and animated avatars while observers may watch on an external monitor. My talk will cover the initial testing of this environment in methamphetamine users, highlight some of our current projects and discuss future application.


2) As a Neuroscience Ph.D. student, how did you get involved in this project?

I became involved in this project through a combination of adversity, ingenuity and luck. A handful of researchers around the globe had demonstrated the applicability of virtual reality (VR) in nicotine addicts (i.e. smokers) when I began working with Drs. Newton and De La Garza at UCLA. We discussed the possibility of applying this approach to our methamphetamine studies since our previous methods of inducing craving (videos) had demonstrated modest success. Our initial attempts to collaborate with researchers already using VR proved unsuccessful so we returned to the drawing board to determine the feasibility of developing such a system on our own. I contacted the Experiential Technology Institute (ETC) at UCLA, which specializes in 3-D modeling, and proposed the idea. With their technical expertise and my scientific vision we were able to create an initial environment for testing in a relatively short amount of time. Since I had my hands in both the technical development and scientific application I naturally became heavily involved in the project. More recently, Drs. Newton and De La Garza have relocated to Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX allowing me to lead the VR development/application at UCLA under the mentorship of Dr. Arthur Brody while continuing my collaboration with their research group.

3) Why did you choose Second Life for this purpose?

We decided to develop our research tool on Second Life (SL) for a few decisive reasons: 1) Time; 2) Money; 3) Accessibility; 4) Adaptability. SL provided a preexistent, user-friendly platform to immediately apply our ideas simply using a few PCs, which allowed us to hit the ground running. Additionally, for a small membership fee we could rely on SL to maintain and improve our virtual world. Since SL only requires an Internet connection to access, we realized that opportunities for mobility and future collaboration would be seamless. Lastly, SL may be easily adjusted in real time allowing researchers to easily individualize environments without any knowledge of scripting or modeling. Subsequently I have also realized the greatest benefit of SL is the opportunity for outsourcing – thousands of individuals around the world are creating new environments, objects, and animations daily and are willing to provide their products and services for little to no cost.

4) How can such a 3-D environment be used in behavioral pharmacology research and how can you exam drug taking behavior?

Previous preclinical and clinical research has demonstrated the importance of environment on the response elicited by a drug. Currently, phase I clinical trails assessing novel treatments for drug addiction are conducted in hospitals for safety purposes (i.e. in the case there is an adverse reaction between the medication and the drug of abuse). However, hospital environments tend to be very constrictive and completely irrelevant to the average drug user. Since we cannot take the drug addict to their environment, we must bring the environment to them. Virtual worlds allow a drug user to interact freely in a naturalistic environment while in the safety of a clinical setting. Additionally, such an environment allows researchers to closely track the drug users behavior while on a medication versus a placebo as one would track a rodent in a maze. Researchers may also allow the drug user access to their drug of choice under temporally controlled conditions (i.e. by simply initiating an animated drug taking behavior in the 3-D environment a single dose would be automatically administered) and monitor their drug seeking and taking behavior similar to a rodent in a self-administration chamber. We expect that by creating a more realistic environment we will obtain more realistic responses allowing for better assessment of treatment efficacy. This in turn may increase the predictability of treatment success to a larger, outpatient phase II trial and help aid in early and efficient identification of potential therapies for addictive disorders.


5) Do you plan to extend the research (e.g. different drugs)?

We have recently started a cigarette smoking cessation trial using a smoking virtual environment. 3-D environments have been successfully utilized for anxiety and phobic disorders through repeated exposure to aversive stimuli (e.g. heights, spiders, public speaking, war-like environments) in the safety of a clinical setting with a therapist on hand. Along these lines, we hope to help smokers “extinguish” smoking behavior or relearn more positive behavioral responses to smoking cues they will inevitably come across while trying to quit. If successful this type of treatment may be easily applied to additional addictive and psychiatric disorders.


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One Response to “The Salon Interviews: The Use of Virtual Reality in Addiction Medicine”

  1. MMVR17: The Salon « ScienceRoll Says:

    […] Chris Culbertson (Neuroscience Ph.D. student) presented how virtual reality can be used in addiction medicine. Read more about it in our interview. […]

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