Healthcare Technology Featured Article

November 09, 2016

Study Suggests Virtual Reality Therapy Could Help People with Depression

Virtual reality has been an extremely popular realm of sci-fi speculation for decades and a frequent “what if” topic of discussion for people who used their imaginations to see far into the future of technology’s possibilities. Now, however, people don’t need their imaginations: virtual reality technology is real and out there for public consumption. With the much anticipated arrival of  consumer VR products like the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, and the HTC Vive, the question surrounding virtual reality is no longer “what if,” but how far can we take this groundbreaking new technology?

It’s no surprise that there are already many industries taking advantage of VR technology. Whether it’s YouTube launching VR capability, the many video game studios exploring VR-ready video game consoles, or even amusement parks repurposing old roller coasters into virtual reality theme rides, it seems like an idea for a new use for VR pops up almost every day.

The main uses for VR on the market right now mostly seem to revolve around commercial entertainment and leisure. The excitement around delivering VR technology into the average consumer’s hands has been so deafening that it seems like virtual reality only exists for entertainment purposes. There are, however, a number of less obvious uses for virtual reality popping up in non-commercial fields. One such field, perhaps surprisingly, is personal therapy.

Indeed, some quiet developments in the healthcare industry show that VR’s reach might be much broader than people think. A new study done by UCL and ICREA-University of Barcelona has revealed that immersive virtual reality therapy could be a groundbreaking way to help people suffering from depression.

The study, which involves putting a patient in a simulated reality session featuring an avatar of a crying child, is meant to heighten the patient’s sense of compassion and tamper self-criticism, which can be a common symptom of people suffering from depression. In this experimental form of virtual reality therapy, fifteen different depression patients aged 23-61 were put through a series of virtual reality simulations. First, they embodied an avatar of an adult who was in a room with a distressed child. Their task was to show compassion toward the child in order to get it to calm down using words of encouragement. Next, patients embodied the avatar of the child in distress, and then went through the virtual reality of having an adult avatar show compassion toward them. Understanding the process of compassion from both ends was key in helping lower patients’ levels of self-criticism, and the results indicated that nine patients felt drops in depression levels after the therapy, four instances of which were deemed “clinically significant.”

While some are skeptical towards the idea of using virtual reality as a way to treat real-life diseases and disorders, citing the phenomenon of screens themselves as instigators of these very disorders, the results from this form of therapy have proven promising, and already experts are considering the ways in which VR might be used in therapy and healthcare in general.

Some are speculating that VR therapy could help people with phobias, as virtual reality might prove to be a simpler and safer version of immersion therapy. Others are looking at the big picture and testing out ways that VR technology could be used to interact with medical data more effectively, and some experts are already testing ways in which virtual reality technology might even be able to perform such tasks as detecting early onset Alzheimer’s by having patients respond to cues in a virtual reality setting while doctors monitor their brain function during the test through fMRI in order to look for brainwave patterns that suggest the potential for the disease.

The more available and practical virtual reality becomes, the more people will be able to imagine groundbreaking and potentially life-saving uses for the technology. Virtual reality is already in high demand due to the promise of its many current commercial uses, but the field will certainly grow even more as innovators and developers discover additional ways that virtual reality can really make a huge impact on improving both mental and physical health.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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