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University Of Dayton Researcher Uses Tech To Help Addicts Fight Drug Cravings

University of Dayton
University of Dayton Research Institute software engineer Kelly Cashion (right) adjusts a wireless EEG headset on research engineer Nilesh Powar.

There's an old adage: The first step to change is knowing you have a problem. Kelly Cushion, a software design engineer at University of Dayton's Research Institute, decided to take it one step further. 

She wants to change the brain chemistry of people addicted to opioids to help them see they have a problem.

One of the five $10,000 winners of Ohio Opioid Technology Challenge, first proposed by Gov. John Kasich last year, Cushion created a system that allows people addicted to opioids to witness their cravings in real time. First, she suits them up with a headset or shower-cap-like device that allows them to see their brains' electrical activity through electroencephalography, or EEG.

"We can then discern where that activity is coming from and which of those signals are associated with cravings for opioids," Cashion says.

Then, using that data, the therapy provides an alternative to drugs.

"When we determine where those cravings are coming from, what those signals are, we can provide an interface - think of it as a minigame or a task that the addict would perform with this live feedback from their own brain - and that task will help reduce those cravings," Cashion says.

The alternate task allows them to increase activity in that region of the brain, or increase activity in another region, so the craving feels less powerful. Cashion says the "neurofeedback" aspect - that visual information - is critical.

"Without having live feedback from the patients' own brain, it's hard to tune a task that is specifically targeting them where they're at now, what they're experiencing," she says.

That means the distraction can be tailor-made, person by person. Cashion says the treatment would be used in rehabilitation centers along with more traditional recovery methods. 

The second phase of the contest kick off later this month, and proposals are due in August. Cashion will be working on a viable prototype until then, and if she clears the next bar, looking at commercialization so they can be utilized more broadly.

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.