People most likely think of games and adventure rather than therapy when it comes to cutting-edge virtual reality technology.

However, researchers at Indiana University – with $4.9 million from the National Institutes of Health – are combining psychological principles and VR tech to help people with substance abuse disorders.

According to an IU news release, researchers have built a virtual environment using “future-self avatars” that are life-sized, fully animated and nearly photo-realistic.

In a study published in Discover Mental Health, IU scientists looked at 21 people who could converse with their future selves (designed to appear 15 years older) to see what life would be like with or without their addictions. Of the group, 18 remained sober for the 30-day test period and beyond.

Despite the small sample size, the authors believe the test “shows considerable promise for much-needed interventions promoting (substance use disorder) remission.”

Technological innovation is needed as the United States set a grim record last year with more than 100,000 estimated drug overdose deaths.

“VR technology is clinically effective and increasingly common for treating a variety of mental health conditions, such as phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and post-operative pain, but has yet to find wide use in substance use disorders intervention or recovery,” said Brandon Oberlin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at IU School of Medicine and one of the study’s authors. “Capitalizing on VR’s ability to deliver an immersive experience showing otherwise-impossible scenarios, we created a way for people to interact with different versions of their future selves in the context of substance use and recovery.”

Editorials are the opinion of The Journal Gazette Editorial Board: President Julie Inskeep, publisher Sherry Skufca, editorial page editor Fredrick McKissack and editorial writer Jeff Kovaleski.