VR therapist can help people overcome fear of heights

Acrophobia, or fear of heights, is the most commonly reported phobia, affecting one in five people during their lifetime, with one in 20 people clinically diagnosed.

THURSDAY, July 12, 2018 (HealthDay News) - Automated virtual reality (VR) treatments can alleviate fear of heights, according to a study published online July 11 in The Lancet Psychiatry.

Participants given the virtual reality treatment had roughly six 30-minute sessions over two weeks, where they wore a virtual reality headset.

Other tasks also included rescuing a cat from a tree, playing a xylophone near an edge, and throwing balls over the edge of a drop.

The researchers found that the VR treatment reduced fear of heights at the end of treatment compared with the control groups (mean change score on the Heights Interpretation Questionnaire: -24.5 versus -1.2; adjusted difference, -24.0).

Of the 49 participants offered the virtual reality treatment, 47 took part in at least one session, and 44 completed the full course of treatment. At the four week follow-up, in fact, 34 out of the 49 original participants did not have fear of heights any longer.

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There were no adverse events reported by any participants.

"It is just the most common type of phobia and one we know a lot of people do not get treatment for despite it impinging on many people's lives quite a lot", said Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, England. This is, among other factors, because participants are randomly assigned to the group (treatment or control) they are in which, in turn, reduces bias in results. Earlier this year the team successfully bid for £4 million of funding from The National Centre for Health Research (NIHR) which is to be used for the creation of VR therapy for mental health [VIDEO] issues. The second group was asked to carry on without treatment so that a comparison could be made.

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 affordable VR headsets.

They point out the need for further research to pinpoint the portion of the treatment that is responsible for the clinical effect.

The question remains whether VR therapy will be equally effective in more serious conditions such as psychosis which are now treated only by mental health professionals in one-on-one sessions.

The positive findings of this study will pave the way for future research on therapy delivered using VR technology.

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