"Immersive virtual reality therapies that do not need a therapist have the potential to dramatically increase access to psychological interventions", said Daniel Freeman, a professor at University of Oxford in the UK.
Previously, people with a fear of heights had been proved to show comparable improvement following either VR training along with a therapist or real-life exposure therapy, and that the improvement was maintained for a year or more. The subjects of this trial completed a questionnaire about their phobia before the trial began, two weeks after the therapy ended, and four weeks after the trial ended. One hundred participants were randomized to either automated VR delivery in roughly six 30-minute sessions administered two to three times per week over a two-week period (49 participants) or to usual care (51 participants).
Thanks to a new method of psychotherapy was able to reduce the fear of height by 68% in the first group, while the standard treatment fear decreased only 3.3% in volunteers from the second group.
The VR programme immerses participants in environments such as rescuing a cat from a tree or picking fruits, the report said.
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Although the upfront cost for implementing VR treatment is initially higher, they said, "subsequent costs for this treatment are very low, with no need for a therapist to be present, and cheap consumer VR hardware is used".
"As seen in our clinical trial, VR treatments have the potential to be effective, faster, and more appealing for many patients than traditional face-to-face therapies". Earlier this year the team successfully bid for £4 million of funding from The National Centre for Health Research (NIHR) which is to be used for the creation of VR therapy for mental health [VIDEO] issues.
"With our unique automation of therapy using VR, there is the opportunity to provide really high quality treatment to many more people at an affordable cost", Freeman added.
The authors identified some limitations, such as the lack of a direct comparison between now utilized psychological treatments for phobias (counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotherapy) and the automated VR therapy. Also, the participants were self-referred which may have introduced some degree of selection bias. The scientists have that such treatment could be useful in treating a range of mental health conditions.
The positive findings of this study will pave the way for future research on therapy delivered using VR technology.