Wednesday, 21 November, 2018

VR therapy may lessen fear of heights, says study

James Stewart‘s acrophobia and vertigo could have been cured by VR therapy James Stewart‘s acrophobia and vertigo could have been cured by VR therapySHUTTERSTOCK
Celia Hoffman | 14 July, 2018, 13:10

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.

It thus offers a proof of concept of the success of automated VR therapy for some mental conditions, which could dramatically increase access to psychological treatment.

He pointed out that while earlier approaches used VR to assist with therapies, acrophobia is the first branch of mental health that can be completely tackled with VR even without the presence of a trained therapist. Three fear-of-height assessments were conducted at baseline, end of treatment (two weeks), and follow-up (four weeks).

Those who took part in the trial totalled 100 with 49 participants undergoing the VR treatment over a two-week period.

Tasks included having to cross a rickety bridge, rescue a cat from a tree, perform tasks near the edge of a balcony - and ride a flying whale.

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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). 51 people were the control group. To at least halve the fear of heights, the number needed to treat was 1.3; there were no reports of adverse events.

"The beauty of VR in all of this is that people know it's not real, and therefore they're much more likely to try a thing", said Dr. Freeman about the benefits of the program, adding that "some people really do not want to see a therapist". Only half of them were given access to VR therapy in the form of six sessions spread over a fortnight.

"There are too few skilled therapists delivering the best treatments to meet the high demand, meaning that millions of people are left waiting for the right help", Freeman said, noting that more research can help pave the way for offering VR treatments as an effective alternative.

Using voice recognition technology, Nic can interact with patients and gauge their fear levels by asking how they feel on a scale of 1 to 10.

"We are carrying out clinical testing to learn whether automation of psychological treatment using virtual reality works for other mental health disorders", said Freeman. The second group was asked to carry on without treatment so that a comparison could be made. Also, the participants were self-referred which may have introduced some degree of selection bias. It is already known that treatments focused on specific symptoms such as auditory hallucinations produce promising results with potentially greater effect sizes, but are presently available only in personal therapy by experts. Oxford VR contributed funding to the study.

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