Immersive Virtual Reality Could Help Treat Depression

The study was small, but the results are encouraging. oatawa/Shutterstock

From deep space to wildlife parks, there are few places that virtual reality can’t take you. And while that may all be fun and games, scientists are beginning to find uses for it that may offer solutions to real world problems. It’s already helped surgeons carry out complex operations, and now it may have another place in the clinic: helping patients with depression.

A complex and poorly understood condition, depression often goes hand-in-hand with excessive self-criticism, which represents a major obstacle to recovery. Having a bit more love for yourself could therefore help instigate long-term change, altering negative thought patterns that contribute to the maintenance of low moods. And that’s what researchers at University College London and ICREA-University of Barcelona hope to achieve with virtual reality (VR).

Described in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open, the researchers wanted to see if identifying with a virtual body in immersive VR could increase self-compassion in patients with depression. To do this, they designed an 8-minute scenario in which a participant comforted a virtual child in distress. To make it more life-like, the virtual room was set up exactly like the actual room they were sat in, aside from the addition of a mirror that allowed the participant to see their virtual self, thus helping generate the illusion that the virtual body is their own, something called embodiment.

The virtual child was programmed to respond positively to the compassionate words ushered by the volunteers, making them feel like their actions are helping the child. Next, the adult was embodied as the child and their compassionate words were played back to them from a virtual adult, giving them a different perspective.

“We conducted an earlier study in which we used exactly the same scenario but recruited healthy volunteers who were high in self-criticism,” lead researcher Professor Chris Brewin told IFLScience. “We had a control whereby participants watched from an outsider perspective, not through the child’s eyes, and we didn’t see changes in self-compassion.” 

Here you can see the adult comforting a virtual child. UCL. 

For a small group of 15 adult patients with depression, the sessions were repeated three times at weekly intervals before a follow-up assessment of self-criticism, self-compassion, and depression one month later. Encouragingly, they found that the VR experience not only boosted self-compassion, it also significantly reduced self-criticism and the severity of depression. Of the nine who reported a reduction in symptoms of depression, four showed clinically significant improvement. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the study – an open trial rather than a random-controlled trial – it can’t be concluded that any improvements were definitely due to the intervention.

“Self-criticism is a huge vulnerability factor across a wide range of disorders,” said Brewin. “So it’s not inconceivable that if you can reduce that, this technique could be an effective standalone treatment for a proportion of people, where self-criticism is the main driving factor.”

In addition, VR is becoming more widely available to the consumers and at a low cost, meaning that this method could be used as a way to reach a significant number of people who won’t admit that they are having problems or seek help. “That’s one of the main reasons we think this is such a promising development,” Brewin said. 

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