Date: 13 July 2018
Researchers have successfully used automated virtual reality psychological therapy to treat fear of heights, in a pioneering clinical trial supported by the NIHR.
An estimated one in five people experience a fear of heights at some point in their lives, and most never receive treatment. Although virtual reality has been used in the past for phobias, it has always required a therapist to guide the user through the treatment.
Now a team of researchers led by Professor Daniel Freeman and supported by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre have developed a virtual reality programme in which psychological therapy is delivered by a computer-generated virtual coach. Treatment is personalised, with users able to interact with the virtual coach using voice recognition technology.
Their research, published in Lancet Psychiatry, tested the therapy in 100 people who had lived with a fear of heights for 30 years. Participants randomly allocated to the therapy arm wore a headset and were guided around a computer-generated ten-storey office building by Nic, the virtual coach. During the sessions, users undertook a series of activities that increased in difficulty the higher they went.
Professor Freeman from the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry said: “We designed the treatment to be as imaginative, entertaining, and easy to navigate as possible. So the tasks the participants were asked to complete included crossing a rickety walkway, rescuing a cat from a tree in the building’s atrium, painting a picture and playing a xylophone on the edge of a balcony, and finally riding a virtual whale around the atrium space!”
All participants in the virtual reality group showed a reduction in fear of heights, with the average reduction being 68.0%. Half of the participants in the virtual group had a reduction in fear of heights by over three quarters. These results are better than those expected with the best psychological intervention delivered face to face with a therapist.
Professor Freeman, who is also a clinical psychologist in Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The results are extraordinarily good. We were confident the treatment would prove effective, but the outcomes exceeded our expectations. Our study demonstrates that virtual reality can be an extremely powerful means to deliver psychological therapy.”
Professor Daniel Freeman is investigating using virtual reality for a number of other mental health problems ranging from schizophrenia to depression in his £4 million Challenge Award from the NIHR Invention for Innovation (i4i) programme.
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