In 2020, more than 90,000 people died in the United States from opioid overdose, with half of those deaths occurring in their own homes. Southern Illinois University (SIU) faculty member Wasantha Jayawardene and his colleagues believe that a virtual reality-based training tool could be the key to saving lives. They have received an Illinois Innovation Network seed grant to study their idea.

Jayawardene, an assistant professor of public health at SIU, and his team have developed a project titled “Developing and Testing the Virtual Reality Embedded Naloxone Training (VENT).” They received a $30,000 seed grant for this project, which SIU is also providing matching funding for.

One of the major challenges in preventing opioid deaths is the need for quick and effective reaction. Brain cells begin dying within 5 minutes after breathing stops, but the median time for an ambulance to arrive is 7 minutes. In many rural areas, it takes even longer. Administering naloxone, a life-saving medication, within those critical minutes can save lives.

Currently, laypersons are hesitant to use naloxone, despite its availability without a prescription. Jayawardene believes that by making the training process easy and even fun, more people would be willing to participate. They have incorporated virtual reality technology, using a mixed reality prototype that combines virtual and physical elements, including a manikin and a virtual reality training headset.

The project will begin by testing the virtual reality training module with a group of 15 laypeople and five experts. The researchers will modify the training based on the results and further field test it throughout the state of Illinois. They will compare the VENT model to traditional community trainings to determine its effectiveness and user preference. If successful, they will seek funding to implement the training on a larger scale, focusing on high-risk groups.

In addition to training on administering naloxone, the program also aims to educate participants on how opioids and naloxone work in the body. By understanding the way these substances affect cellular receptors and breathing, people can better respond to opioid overdose situations.

Naloxone has been available since the 1960s and approved by the FDA since 1971. However, its distribution and use remain minimal. The researchers hope that their virtual reality training tool will increase the accessibility and usage of naloxone, ultimately saving more lives from opioid overdose.

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