Petra Schweinhardt and Jasmine Ho have recently received an SNF Sinergia Grant for their research project “Virtual Reality and Psychoplastogens: A Synergistic Approach for The Treatment of Chronic Pain”. The project is starting in spring 2024. We had the chance to talk to Petra about it.
Hi Petra, you have recently received an SNF Sinergia Grant, which supports interdisciplinary collaboration among research groups that propose breakthrough research. Congratulations! Can you tell us who else is part of this project?
Thank you! Our team comprises Milan Scheidegger, an expert in psychedelic substances, Bigna Lenggenhager, a pioneer in bodily plasticity and altered embodiment in virtual reality (VR) as well as Felix Scholkmann, who conducted the first fNIRS neuroimaging of the brain during the psychedelic state, and me, an expert in chronic pain and its multifaceted mechanisms. However, putting together the project would not have been possible without our team’s postdoctoral researcher, Jasmine Ho. Jasmine is conducting several preliminary ‘VR with psychedelics’ studies as a foundation for the upcoming Sinergia grant.
It is an exciting combination of scientists, which makes me wonder what your research is about…
Both VR and psychedelics have successfully been used separately to ameliorate pain. However, combining the two could create a more robust treatment paradigm, wherein the individual interventions not only complement each other but increase the efficacy of the other through synergistic interactions. Our projects will produce the first insights into the synergy of VR and psychedelics.
How exactly does this work?
VR and psychedelics can disrupt our typical, more rigid sensory experiences, thereby enhancing our sensitivity to new incoming information. VR alters the inbound external information via visual input. In contrast, psychedelics can enhance neuroplasticity and potentially increase the sensitivity to and efficacy of the VR signals to restructure cognition and perception. Therefore, combining the two could demonstrate a synergy.
How did the idea for this project emerge?
Our postdoc, Jasmine Ho, had been conducting her doctoral studies in Bigna Lenggenhager’s lab, where they explored VR to alter body perception and pain, and then continued her postdoctoral work in that lab to assess the efficacy of this method to reduce chronic pain. Having further published on how psychedelics could alter bodily perception, Jasmine reached out to me a while back to establish a collaboration and to put together a team of applicants whose expertise would combine these previously separate research areas.
And what personally drove your involvement in this project?
I have dedicated my research career to better understanding the underlying ‘bio-psycho-social’ mechanisms and contributors to chronic pain. What I find intriguing about this project is that the innovative combination of VR and psychedelics for pain tries to utilize the neuroplastic capabilities of psychedelics to enhance the remodeling effects of VR. With this approach, we target biological AND psychological social mechanisms of (chronic) pain.
Are there any challenges you anticipate?
Despite the widespread prevalence of chronic pain, with roughly 1 in 5 individuals affected worldwide, a big challenge includes patient recruitment. However, we hope to mitigate this through access to my network of patients and colleagues. Furthermore, a few studies have examined psychedelics in patients with chronic pain. We do not know how these patients will respond to the synergy with VR. However, together with the expertise of Milan Scheidegger, we will be taking all precautionary measures and are therefore optimistic about the project’s outcomes.
What else would you like to tell about the project or the people involved?
We are very excited to be starting this project soon, but any project is only as good as its team. While we have a fantastic foundational group of people to start, we will be looking to expand our team with two doctoral researchers and several research assistants, master and bachelor students. If anyone has a specific interest in joining our team, please contact Jasmine at jasmine.ho[at]bli.uzh.ch.
Image: Jasmine Ho, former research project