To test virtual reality therapy as a possible new treatment for patients with depression, teams from University College London (UCL) and ICREA-University of Barcelona, recruited 15 patients with depression aged 23 – 61. The patients were asked to wear a virtual reality headset which gave them a new perspective from the point of view of a life-size ‘avatar’, or virtual body.
The patients could see this avatar in a mirror, moving in the same way as their own body, giving participants the feeling that it was in fact their own body, an experience known as ‘embodiment’.
During the study the patients were embodied in two different avatars. In the first, participants were in an adult avatar, and were trained to express compassion. They had to use this training to express compassion towards a distressed and crying virtual child, who eventually stopped crying and became calmer in response to the patient’s compassionate behavior.
So that they could then experience this compassion, the patients then switched roles and were then embodied in a virtual child before they saw their own adult avatar behave compassionately towards them.
This short, eight-minute experience was repeated with the patients three times at weekly intervals.
When there was a follow-up with the patients a month later, the team found that nine reported a decrease in the severity of their depressive symptoms, with four of the nine reporting a clinically significant reduction in symptoms. The researchers also saw an increase in self-compassion and reduction in self-criticism, both common problems in patients with depression.
Although this study shows promising results, as a small trial without a control group it does have limitations, making it difficult for the researchers to say for sure that it was the virtual reality world that was responsible for the reduction in symptoms.
The study’s co-author Professor Mel Slater said, “We now hope to develop the technique further to conduct a larger controlled trial, so that we can confidently determine any clinical benefit. 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 were published in the journal British Journal of Psychiatry Open.