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Researchers harness computer science for treating opioid addiction

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MONTANA — Augmented reality, in which digital data is blended with sensory experience via a special headset or similar technology, has been used to train surgeons, to help fighter pilots navigate and to entertain the masses with video games like Pokémon Go. Now, researchers at Montana State University hope it can be used to help those recovering from addiction to opioid drugs.

Backed by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, MSU computer scientists will work with healthcare professionals to develop a computerized system that connects patients with recovery strategies, whether they’re on a bus, at work or at home.

“We’re very excited about this,” said Laura Stanley, associate professor in the Gianforte School of Computing in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, who is leading the project. “We want to harness these technological advances to provide people with discreet, portable and personalized interventions that can help them deal with their cravings.”

The technology will include augmented reality glasses or headsets that can guide patients through breathing exercises meant to calm them and even display lifelike, interactive recordings of a therapist. A wristwatch-like wearable computer that monitors a patient’s heart rate and other vital signs will help the system gauge a patient’s mental state and respond accordingly.

“We’re not trying to replace in-person treatment but rather give people another set of coping tools,” Stanley said.

“One value of this approach is that the treatment can happen in real time, so someone can have an intervention instantaneously instead of having to wait until they can come into the clinic,” said research team member Angelica Perez, a director at the Prisma Health Addiction Research Center, a collaborative effort of health care provider Prisma Health and Clemson University in Greenville, South Carolina.

Opioids — which include illegal heroin as well as widely prescribed painkillers that also have a street market — are the main driver of drug overdoses in the U.S., accounting for more than two-thirds of the nearly 70,000 overdose deaths in 2018, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The drugs are so addictive that recovery is a long process, often lasting months or years, and strong cravings can be triggered unexpectedly by a smell or sound associated with past drug use, according to Perez, who is also a researcher at Clemson University.

“We’re very hopeful that this technology can be a powerful tool for improving peoples’ lives while they’re in treatment and also for increasing their chances of success during long-term recovery,” said Alain Litwin, executive director of the Prisma Health Addiction Research Center and professor at Clemson University and the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville.

Perez and Litwin will work with patients who volunteer to help develop and test the technology in a study that will involve nearly 50 people recovering from opioids, according to Litwin. “We think this will be very well received,” he said.

Stanley, along with John Sheppard, MSU professor of computer science, and other collaborators at MSU, will develop the software underlying the technology, including the sophisticated algorithms that interactively blend the therapeutic interventions into a patient’s experience. Those algorithms will draw from methods in machine learning, which is a cutting-edge field of computer science that’s finding an increasingly wide range of applications, according to Sheppard.

Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, will provide guidance to help ensure the technology meets patients’ needs, Stanley said. Additionally, collaborators at Texas A&M University will use noninvasive optical imaging techniques to study in a controlled setting how volunteers’ brain activity changes in response to using the technology.

“Ultimately, the goal is to make something that’s as effective as possible for the patients,” Stanley said. “Even if we only reach a small percentage of people struggling with opioid addiction, we can have a big impact.”


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