Virtual Reality Predicted to Play Growing Role in Psychiatric Treatment

May 18, 2017

Virtual reality technology will likely play a greater role in the treatment of certain types of mental health disorders in the near future, suggests a new research review in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

“Virtual reality is potentially a powerful tool for the psychiatric community,” said lead author Jessica L. Maples-Keller, PhD, of the University of Georgia, Athens. “It allows providers to create computer-generated environments in a controlled setting, which can be used to create a sense of presence and immersion in the feared environment for individuals suffering from anxiety disorders.”

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According to the review, virtual reality technology studies have focused largely on exposure-based treatment for anxiety disorders. In patients with a fear of flying, for example, virtual reality technology can simulate takeoffs and landings. For combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the technology can be used to recreate battle conditions.

In addition to offering access to exposures that would be costly or impractical to replicate in real life while also giving mental health clinicians complete control over the “dose,” virtual reality technology is accepted by patients, some of whom prefer it over traditional therapy. For flight phobia, studies have demonstrated significant and lasting reductions, the review reported. 

Other conditions for which virtual reality technology has been tested include panic disorder, schizophrenia, acute and chronic pain, smoking and other addictions, and eating disorders.

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The review listed several limitations of current research, including small numbers of patients and a lack of comparison groups in studies. It also included an advisory: Mental health clinicians should have specific training before integrating virtual reality technology into clinical practice.

“With the cost of head-mounted displays coming down and smaller smartphone applications being developed, it is likely that virtual reality applications will proliferate,” the researchers concluded. “It will be important that these are treated as tools and therapists are properly trained in their applications.”

 —Jolynn Tumolo

References

Maples-Keller JL, Bunnell BE, Kim SJ, Rothbaum BO. The use of virtual reality technology in the treatment of anxiety and other psychiatric disorders. Harvard Review of Psychiatry. 2017;25(3):103-113.

Virtual reality for psychiatric treatment? Research shows promise for VR and other technologies in mental health care [press release]. New York, NY: Wolters Kluwer; May 8, 2017.