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Now You Can Treat Certain Mental Disorders with Virtual Reality

Edwin had enrolled himself in a new virtual reality therapy study to overcome the constant fear that people want to harm him. The research, which intended to assist people with paranoia stay comfortable in public places was described in March in the Lancet Psychiatry.

Edwin had entered a virtual environment of a coffee shop full of people, tailor-made especially for him. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he often found a simple visit to a grocery exhausting and overwhelming and the people he met, dangerous. During the therapy, Roos Pot-Kolder, a clinical psychologist of VU University Amsterdam sat at a computer close to Edwin and customised the number of virtual people he would meet and their friendliness level.

Pot-Kolder even trained Edwin to question his own assumptions borne out of paranoia. Three months later, he felt much more comfortable during public outings than ever before and even performed a poem at a live talent show.

Clinical cyberpsychologist at the University of Quebec in Outaouais, Canada, Stéphane Bouchard, is of the opinion that patients of anxiety disorders need to face their fears. Known as exposure therapy, this practice proves to be more fruitful in a virtual environment. A person, who is scared of flights, can take off and land several times in a VR session without having to incur the hassle or cost of a real flight.

The complicated and costly aspect of VR equipment kept VR therapy restricted to a handful of clinics and labs, even recently. However, the Oculus Rift, which costs only a few hundred dollars and the Samsung Gear VR headset that turn smartphones into virtual reality displays have made it easier to treat people.

In the 1990s, Barbara Rothbaum, a clinical psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta, and her colleagues started studying VR treatment for a psychological disorder. Quite successfully, they took height-phobic patients to balconies and bridges through their VR program.

After two decades and non-stop research, scientists have learnt a lot and come to believe that certain phobias can be treated with VR treatments as efficiently as with real-life exposure.

In more recent times, researchers have tested VR systems to treat people suffering from more nuanced fear triggers like the obsessive-compulsive or social anxiety disorder.

A computer scientist at Korea University in Seoul, Gerard Jounghyun Kim, and his colleagues are testing a mix of fantastical and real components to aid those suffering from panic disorder. Users can visit a panic-inducing situation under the new program and on experiencing a panic attack, they can be transferred to a peaceful place by just hitting a button. All this while, they hold a thumping device in their hand and see a virtual heart that pumps with their own.

Clinical psychologist, Daniel Freeman, opines that researchers are in the primary days of simulating impossible situations in VR for the sole aim of therapy. However, with VR getting more extensive and permeating, more researchers may have the window to develop innovative new treatments that harness virtual reality.

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  1. Steve Probwise

    Wow! nice article.

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