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Universities Developing VR Therapy for Depression

Such is virtual realities (VR) immersive qualities that it can be used for a range of applications, therapy being one of them. VRFocus reported back in June 2015, researchers in South Korea were trying VR therapy to help people with alcohol dependence reduce their cravings. Now a new study from University College London (UCL) and ICREA-University of Barcelona has been examining how VR could help those with depression.

Published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open and funded by the Medical Research Council, the study found that when immersive VR therapy was used on people diagnosed with depression they became less critical and more compassionate towards themselves, reducing depressive symptoms.

Oculus Rift

Previously tested by healthy volunteers, the therapy was used by fifteen patients aged 23-61 with depression. A month after the therapy, nine reported reduced symptoms of whom four experienced a clinically significant drop in depression severity.

The therapy involved participants viewing a virtual world through a life-size virtual body. They could then view this body in a virtual mirror as it replicated their movements. The patients then had to express compassion towards a upset virtual child. Talking to the child it gradually stopped crying, responding in a positive way. After which the patients then became the child, watching the adult avatar giving them compassionate words and gestures. The whole experience lasted eight minutes and got repeated three times at weekly intervals.

“People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives,” explains study lead Professor Chris Brewin UCL Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology in a statement. “In this study, by comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion. The aim was to teach patients to be more compassionate towards themselves and less self-critical, and we saw promising results. A month after the study, several patients described how their experience had changed their response to real-life situations in which they would previously have been self-critical.”

“We now hope to develop the technique further to conduct a larger controlled trial, so that we can confidently determine any clinical benefit,” added co-author Professor Mel Slater ICREA-University of Barcelona and UCL Computer Science. “If a substantial benefit is seen, then this therapy could have huge potential. The recent marketing of low-cost home virtual reality systems means that methods such as this could potentially be part of every home and be used on a widespread basis.”

VRFocus will continue to bring you the latest developments in VR as further progress is made.