Virtual reality therapist can help people overcome fear of heights

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

"Our view is that automated immersive VR has the potential to increase access to the best psychological interventions radically".

The use of virtual reality (VR) therapy helped reduce the fear of heights in a group of people who suffered from long-term acrophobia. One hundred participants were randomized to either automated VR delivery in roughly six 30-minute sessions administered two to three times per week over a two-week period (49 participants) or to usual care (51 participants).

Other tasks also included rescuing a cat from a tree, playing a xylophone near an edge, and throwing balls over the edge of a drop.

At the end of treatment and at follow-up, control group participants rated their fear of heights as remaining similar, but all participants in the virtual reality treatment group rated that their fear of heights had reduced.

44 participants completed all the sessions, with one person being unable to attend further sessions, and two people expressing unwillingness to do so as they felt it was too hard.

There were no adverse events reported by any participants.

Professor of clinical psychology Daniel Freeman, first author of the research, said that while fear of heights is the most common type of phobia, "we know a lot of people do not get treatment for it, despite it impinging on many people's lives quite a lot".

Out of the 49 people given therapy, 47 people took at least one VR session with an average of four-and-half sessions for the group.

Writing in an accompanying commentary, Mark Hayward, PhD, DClinPsy, of the University of Sussex in Brighton, said the study represents the "latest step in an impressive program of research that has the potential to transform the provision of psychological treatments to patients with various mental health problems". The second group was asked to carry on without treatment so that a comparison could be made.

Published in British medical journal, The Lancet Psychiatry, the research suggests that VR technology has much feasibility to be used as a method of delivering psychological therapies. Finally, the authors evaluated the severity of phobia initially on the basis of self-completed questionnaires rather than patient assessment in real-life situations. The duration of the current trial was very short, and longer periods could result in more sustained benefit.

The question remains whether VR therapy will be equally effective in more serious conditions such as psychosis which are now treated only by mental health professionals in one-on-one sessions. Studies are needed to confirm the place of VR in increasing access via automation, and improving effect size by virtual exposure therapy.

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