Researchers from Oxford University have shown that virtual reality may be used to treat patients with persecutory delusions. Though still early work, and rather small in size, the study gives us a glimpse of how virtual reality (VR) could be used for far more than gaming.
The study had 30 patients who underwent computer-generated simulations that put them in social situations that they were afraid of, like an underground train carriage or an elevator. One group of patients were asked to try to engage with other computer-generated people in the simulation, while the rest were asked to remain defensive.
The study asserts that the first group showed a reduction in paranoid delusions. Notably, the second group of patients still showed some reduction in severe paranoia despite keeping up their defenses, but the team asserts that the results were not as dramatic.
Professor Daniel Freeman, a clinical psychologist at the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University, says that “at the heart of paranoia is the unfounded belief that people are under threat. With virtual reality we can help the person to relearn that they are safe, and when they do that, the paranoia melts away.”
Even though the study was fairly small with no long-term follow up currently planned, Freeman says that the results are “exceptionally good.”
“I think this is a glimpse into the future of mental health care. There is a revolution underway in virtual reality with many headsets becoming available. As these become more affordable we will see them used not just in clinical settings, but in people’s homes.”
Head of Neurosciences and Mental Health at the Medical Research Council Dr. Kathryn Adcock adds that “virtual reality is proving extremely effective in the assessment and treatment of mental health problems.”
Dr. Adcock says that the Oxford study shows the potential of virtual reality in treatment of a major psychiatric problem like persecutory delusions.