Virtual Reality Therapy Shows Promise for Depression

A novel type of virtual reality therapy in which depressed patients receive their own soothing words of comfort has been found to help relieve symptoms of depression, according to a new trial study from the University College London (UCL) and ICREA-University of Barcelona.

The researchers believe this type of therapy works because it helps depressed patients feel less critical and more compassionate toward themselves.

After testing the therapy on healthy volunteers, researchers recruited 15 patients with depression between the ages of 23 and 61. Participants wore a virtual reality headset which gave them the perspective of a life-size avatar or virtual body.

Watching this virtual body in a mirror moving in the same way as their own body gave the illusion that this was their own body. This experience is called “embodiment.”

While embodied in an adult avatar, participants were trained to express compassion towards a distressed virtual child. As they spoke words of comfort, the child appeared to gradually stop crying and respond positively to the compassion.

After a few minutes the patients were embodied in the virtual child, who then experienced their previous adult avatar delivering their own compassionate words and gestures to them. This brief eight minute scenario was repeated three times at weekly intervals, and patients were followed up a month later.

Nine of the participants reported reduced depressive symptoms a month after the therapy, four of whom experienced a clinically significant drop in depression severity.

“People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives,” said study lead Professor Chris Brewin (UCL Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology).

“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,” said Brewin.

The findings offer a promising proof-of-concept, but as a small trial without a control group it cannot show whether the intervention is responsible for the clinical improvement in patients.

“We now hope to develop the technique further to conduct a larger controlled trial, so that we can confidently determine any clinical benefit,” said co-author Professor Mel Slater of ICREA-University of Barcelona and UCL Computer Science.

“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.”

The findings are published in the journal British Journal of Psychiatry Open.

Source: Unviversity College London

Woman using virtual reality photo by shutterstock.