When Healthcare Goes Virtual: New Therapy Techniques with Virtual Reality

A novel contrivance has taken birth in the laboratories of University College London (UCL) and ICREA-University of Barcelona. This comes in the form of virtual reality therapy; an innovative emergence in the world of medical technology. Virtual Reality Therapy promises to aid patients who are afflicted by depression. This methodology is believed to be an instrumental aid for incurring compassion, mitigating criticism and instilling a sense of self in depressed individuals. This in turn diminishes other symptomatic behaviours among them, thereby rendering itself as an efficacious therapy tool.

Like any other new discovery, soon after the advent of this therapeutic device, it was tried and tested within a control group of 15 individuals ailing from depression (aged 23-61). The results of this trial were both a relief as well as a reinforcement of the researchers’ convictions. A month succeeding the trial, nine patients had seemingly mitigated depression symptoms. Four out of these nine patients even reported that their depression acuteness had plummeted by a considerable amount on the clinical scale.

This inimitable breakthrough received its monetary endowments from the Medical Research Council and was first featured amidst the public eyes by the means of being published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open.

How exactly is this executed? Well, it’s a simple process wherein the targeted patient afflicted by depression wears a virtual reality headset. Upon viewing the projected and simulated world, the patient’s vision embodies that of a life-size avatar or in terms, a virtual body of sorts.  Since this ‘virtual body’ has the semblance of the patient’s own body and motions in correspondence with it, it contrives the illusion of being the patient’s realistic self to them. This process is generally termed as “Embodiment”.

Once embodied in the virtual avatar completely, the participating patients are then instructed on how to exercise empathy and care towards a virtual child who is in an evident state of anguish.  On the basis of their interactions, the virtual young person would respond positively by stopping to weep or smiling.

In order to make the patients view their own interactions from another lens of vision, they are subsequently embodies in the virtual child’s Avatar to experience their own expression of compassion from an extrinsic vantage point. This entire procedure only takes eight minutes and is repeated three times with an interval of seven days (a week) between each session. The patients are then contacted to gauge their response and feedback a month later.

Stood at the frontier of this innovative analytical study is Professor Chris Brewin (UCL Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology) who opined: "People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives.”

"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."

He further conferred, “"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."

Since the magnitude and nature of the trials conducted were humble, this study cannot in entirety take the shape of a full-fledged therapy in execution. It is, however, a tangible proof-of-concept and is definitely in its formative stages of becoming something more sentient. The researchers are now trying to ascertain that the amelioration witnessed in the participating patients was a result of the therapy without the intervention of any external variables.