Virtual Reality Shows Promise as Acrophobia Treatment

A new method of psychotherapy was tested in Oxford using the game with immersion in virtual reality.

The first session has the virtual coach provide a brief overview of the psychological underpinnings of fear of heights and treatment.

The initial cost of software development was high, with a team of psychologists, programmers, script writers, and an actor working intensively for six months, but subsequent costs for the treatment were low, as a therapist does not need to be present and consumer virtual reality hardware is now affordable. "Evidence-based VR treatments have the potential to greatly increase treatment provision for mental health disorders". This is the most common phobia in the world, being reported by about 20% of people at some point in their lifetime, and diagnosed in approx 5% of the population. One hundred participants were randomized to either automated VR delivery in roughly six 30-minute sessions administered two to three times per week over a two-week period (49 participants) or to usual care (51 participants).

While this form of therapy is cost-intensive in the software development phase, with the need for detailed and constant input from psychologists, programmers, scriptwriters and actors, the costs are significantly low in the long term since it avoids the need for a therapist during each session and makes use of cheap VR headsets. No participant reported any adverse event.

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One possible limitation, however, he said, was that the cohort was quite different from individuals with severe mental illness typically seen in secondary-care mental health services within the U.K.'s National Health System - for example, most of the participants in the study were employed, and because of this, the technology might actually be more hard to implement in practice compared with what was seen in the trial.

"There are, however, limitations to the study that should be considered before this treatment can be provided as part of routine health care". It suggests that in future VR delivered therapy could even take place in home settings. The authors note that the treatment was brief, and further benefits could be possible with a longer treatment duration. In the course of the game in virtual reality, patients had to perform certain tasks associated with height, and in the intervals between the tasks of the virtual therapist asked about changes in the patient's condition.

'I feel I'm making enormous progress'. He says: " Psychological treatments for patients with psychosis face many challenges, because access to the treatments can be restricted and the treatment might generate only small effects.

The study was funded by Oxford VR and by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre.

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