Can virtual reality help treat depression?

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The virtual reality headset allowed patients to see from the perspective of their life-size “avatars” or virtual bodies and show themselves compassion. – UCL

A little self-criticism is healthy. But for those suffering from anxiety or depression it can be a relentless downward spiral.

Now, a proof-of-principle study suggests boosting a patient’s self-worth may be as simple as a few kind words – from themselves, via a virtual reality avatar.

The therapy, developed by a team of UK and Spanish scientists, was subject to a tiny study. It involved 15 depression patients wearing a virtual reality headset for eight minutes, once a week for three weeks.

The scenario played in the headset involved participants first “embodying” a virtual body by looking at themselves in a virtual mirror.

They were then trained, as the avatar, to comfort a crying, distressed virtual child. During the simulation the child is programmed to respond well to the compassion and eventually stop crying.

After a few minutes, each participant then sees the simulation through the eyes of the virtual child, experiencing compassion and comforting words from their own “adult” avatar.

A month after the end of the three-week treatment, the patients were evaluated for depression symptoms. Nine of the 15 participants were recorded to have reduced depressive symptoms, with four participants categorised as having 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,” explained study author clinical psychologist Chris Brewin.

“In this study, by comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion,” Brewin added.

But, for now at least, the findings should be taken with a grain of salt – the lack of a control group in the study leaves the jury out on whether the virtual reality treatment alone was to thank for the drop in depression symptoms.

But if the clinical benefit can be confirmed in a larger, controlled study, the technique could have wide-spread impact, the authors say.

“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,” said Brewin. “This therapy could have huge potential.”

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