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Virtual reality could help fight depression

It's early days, but initial trials are positive.

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A study by University College London (UCL) and the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) suggests virtual reality could be utilized as a treatment for depression in the future. The pilot study worked with 15 depression patients aged 23 to 61, yielded positive results in 60 percent of subjects.

Research into virtual reality therapy (VRT) has exploded in recent years, thanks in part to the proliferation of affordable and functional hardware to support it. The UCL and ICREA study uses VRT techniques that have already proved effective in other fields such as PTSD therapy. It starts with the patient seeing their virtual body in a mirror. This elicits "embodiment," or the illusion that the avatar is their own body. Subjects are them asked to show compassion to a distressed child. As they engage with the child, it begins to stop crying and respond positively.

The perspective then switches to the child's view, and patients see an adult delivering "their own compassionate words and gestures" to them. The 8-minute scenario was repeated three times over the period of three weeks. Nine out of fifteen said their depressive symptoms had reduced, four of who experienced "a clinically significant drop in depression severity."

Although the results are positive, the small scale of the trial (and the lack of a control group) mean it's impossible to say if the VRT was responsible for the improvement in patients. This is more of a proof-of-concept than a defining statement, but the researchers will continue with their work, hoping to further develop their technique and conduct a large, controlled trial.

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