19 May 2008
Doctors are using virtual reality to treat many disorders, from phobias to addictions
Although virtual reality (VR), or computer–simulated environments, sound like a premise that would excite only computer geeks, doctors and scientists are increasingly using it to treat a range of disorders, from fear of public speaking and flying, to post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers returning from war zones. And, in the past few weeks, scientists have reported that it can also be used to treat drink and drug addictions, and even to help people give up smoking, British daily The Times reported on Saturday.
“With virtual reality we can bring a version of the real world into the clinic.We can help people test out their fears and practise different ways of coping. They can take the confidence gained in VR into the real world”, Times quoted Dr. Daniel Freeman, a clinical psychologist at King’s College London, who is investigating whether the technology can be used to treat paranoia, as saying.
In a study recently reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry, he sent 200 volunteers on a virtual reality ride on the London Underground, in a carriage full of computer–generated passengers. He discovered that 40% of the volunteers experienced paranoid or suspicious thoughts. One of the female volunteers said: “I felt trapped between two men in the doorway”, despite the men being computer characters. Now that Dr. Freeman has shown that VR can generate paranoia feelings, he is hoping to use it in the therapy process.
Dr. Page Anderson, a psychologist at Georgia State University, has used VR technology to help people overcome their fears of flying and public speaking. “The gold–standard treatment for people with phobias is exposure, which is, basically, facing your fears. Repeating an exposure in the real world is hard to do, as flying over and over again would get expensive. However, if you do it virtually, you can, for example, do take–offs many times”.
Dr. Anderson’s study indicated that the patients who use VR therapy did as well as those treated with real–life flying. So why use VR? “Facing fears in a virtual world is much more appealing than facing them in real–life”, says Dr. Anderson. “This may make treatment more accessible.” For patients with a fear of public speaking, she can make the audience look bored, talk among themselves, raise hands, or fall asleep. She can even make virtual mobile phones ring mid–talk.
So how do researchers send patients into the virtual world? The equipment looks slightly comical. The seated patient wears a headset with a visor in which they see the virtual world. Builtin headphones deliver sounds and block out ambient noise. The chair is placed on a vibrating platform, and smells are delivered through an electronic scent machine. The patient is immersed in the sight, sounds, smells of the virtual world. The therapist sits beside the patient in front of a screen, through which he or she can see exactly what the subject sees. The therapist can speak through a microphone wired into the patient’s headphones.
But can patients really treat something that looks like a cheap video game with any seriousness? Yes, according to Dr. Anderson, who has had patients cry and suffer panic attacks on virtual flights. According to Mel Slater, a professor of virtual environments at University College London, virtual worlds are good enough to fool your brain into thinking they are real. “When you go into one of these virtual–reality environments everything is life–size. The characters are good enough for a level of the brain to think ‘OK, this is happening, so let’s make the normal response’, despite your higher consciousness knowing it’s not real.” Slater saw this effect in action when he conducted an experiment in which volunteers were put into a virtual world where a fire broke out. The virtual characters started to run out of the building and many of the volunteers leapt out of their seat, as if to leave.
Recently scientists at the University of Houston reported that VR was useful for treating addictions, from alcohol and tobacco to marijuana and cocaine. Volunteers were guided through various virtual scenarios, from smokefilled parties to seedy crack dens. “We can put you in a virtual–reality party and the therapist can teach you skills to use in that situation, to avoid drinking or smoking”, says Dr. Patrick Bordnick, who led the research. Virtual worlds have also been used to help soldiers recover from PTSD. AGENCIES
To control binge–eating To distract patients when they’re undergoing minor surgery To retrain brains of stroke victims Scientists have developed Snow–World, a snowy VR world that can help to ease burn victim’s pain To treat fear of public speaking and flying To treat post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers returning from war zones To treat drink, smoking and drug addictions.