Answer to the opioid epidemic might lie within a VR headset

25 Jul 2018

Deepa Mann-Kler, CEO, Neon. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

The answer to pressing issues such as chronic pain and poor mental health might be found in the latest VR technology.

Figures on the developing opioid crisis in the western world can be hard to fully grasp, with estimates putting the number of deaths due to addiction at 174 every day in the US alone.

On top of that, in Ireland, the number of prescriptions for the oxycodone drug OxyContin during a 10-year period between 2006 and 2016 saw a huge surge from 47,262 to 122,611.

But what alternatives are there and how accessible are they?

One such alternative was put forward by Deepa Mann-Kler, CEO of Neon, on stage at Inspirefest 2018.

Her company is developing virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experiences to help those living with chronic pain and mental health issues to overcome their daily challenges.

One of those products is BreatheVR, an application using the Samsung Gear VR headset and the Oculus Rift to let the user see their breathing represented by leaves rising and falling in a calming meadow.

By repeating this process, the user can develop a pattern of diaphragmatic breathing, important for the treatment of chronic pain.

VR effects on the brain

In a small trial of 10 people, eight of the participants reported a de-escalation of pain, with some reporting that it actually halved in severity.

“There’s extensive clinical evidence that VR can dampen pain signals to the brain and there are neurological benefits to deep breathing,” Mann-Kler said.

VR can also bring benefits to those living with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions.

Neon is also working with Queen’s University Belfast on an AR game called Whack A Mo to distract children in hospital as they receive routine procedures. To be only made available to hospitals, the game aims to take away the stress of delayed surgeries on the child and the health system overall.

“I firmly believe that immersive technology finally affords people a choice that they haven’t had to date,” she concluded.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic