Virtual Reality Therapy Could Help People with Depression

Wednesday, 17 February 2016 - 3:06PM
Virtual Reality
Medical Tech
Wednesday, 17 February 2016 - 3:06PM
Virtual Reality Therapy Could Help People with Depression
Could virtual reality help treat mental illness? According to a new study by researchers from UCL (University College London) and ICREA-University of Barcelona, a new technique of virtual reality therapy that encourages self-compassion could significantly reduce depressive symptoms.

The study hinges on the long-held notion that self-criticism is a major component of psychopathology, and that it is a psychological trait that both causes depression and makes it more difficult to recover. Virtual reality simulations have previously been shown in experiments to increase empathy towards people of different genders, races, etc., so following the same logic, they tested a virtual reality simulation that encourages the patient to be more compassionate towards him or herself.

Opening quote
"Self-criticism is known to be one of the major psychological factors that creates vulnerability and influences recovery and maintenance of depression," the authors wrote in their paper. "Innovative and easily disseminable interventions that address this, and in particular support long-term change for individuals, are urgently needed."
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The eight-minute simulation, which was repeated three times at weekly intervals, had the patients embody an adult avatar that comforted a crying child. As the patient talked to the simulated child, it would respond positively to compassion and eventually stop crying. After a few minutes, the perspective of the simulation would switch, and the patient would see their own acts of compassion echoed back at them from the perspective of the child. 

Opening quote
"People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives," lead author Professor Chris Brewin of UCL said 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."
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When the researchers followed up with the patients a month later, nine of the fifteen depressive patients reported improvement in their symptoms. Of these nine patients, four showed signs of "clinically significant improvement." Granted, fifteen is a very small sample size, but the results were compelling, and the study is only meant to serve as a proof-of-concept. Now that there is evidence the technique could work, the researchers will perform a larger-scale controlled experiment, and hopefully see statistically significant results that could mean a new low-cost treatment as a companion to talk therapy and medication.

Opening quote
"If a substantial benefit is seen, then this therapy could have huge potential," said co-author Professor Mel Slater of UCL and ICREA-University of Barcelona. "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."
Closing quote

Via IGN.
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