Virtual Reality Therapy Could Help People With Depression

An immersive virtual reality therapy could help people with depression to be less critical and more compassionate towards themselves, reducing depressive symptoms, finds a new study from UCL and ICREA-University of Barcelona.

The therapy, previously tested by healthy volunteers, was used by 15 depression patients aged 23-61. Nine reported reduced depressive symptoms a month after the therapy, of whom four experienced a clinically significant drop in depression severity. The study is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open and was funded by the Medical Research Council.

Patients in the study wore a virtual reality headset to see from the perspective of a life-size ‘avatar’ or virtual body. Seeing this virtual body in a mirror moving in the same way as their own body typically produces the illusion that this is their own body. This is called ‘embodiment’.

While embodied in an adult avatar, participants were trained to express compassion towards a distressed virtual child. As they talked to the child it appeared to gradually stop crying and respond positively to the compassion. After a few minutes the patients were embodied in the virtual child and saw the adult avatar deliver their own compassionate words and gestures to them. This brief 8-minute scenario was repeated three times at weekly intervals, and patients were followed up a month later.

Image shows the virtual reality system and patient role playing.

Participant playing the role of an adult comforting a crying child. Credit: UCL.

“People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives,” explains study lead Professor Chris Brewin (UCL Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology). “In this study, by comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion. The aim was to teach patients to be more compassionate towards themselves and less self-critical, and we saw promising results. A month after the study, several patients described how their experience had changed their response to real-life situations in which they would previously have been self-critical.”

The study offers a promising proof-of-concept, but as a small trial without a control group it cannot show whether the intervention is responsible for the clinical improvement in patients.

“We now hope to develop the technique further to conduct a larger controlled trial, so that we can confidently determine any clinical benefit,” says co-author Professor Mel Slater (ICREA-University of Barcelona and UCL Computer Science). “If a substantial benefit is seen, then this therapy could have huge potential. 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.”

About this psychology research

Source: Harry Dayantis – UCL
Image Source: The image is credited to UCL.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Embodying self-compassion within virtual reality and its effects on patients with depression” by Caroline J. Falconer, Aitor Rovira, John A. King, Paul Gilbert, Angus Antley, Pasco Fearon, Neil Ralph, Mel Slater, and Chris R. Brewin in British Journal of Psychiatry Open. Published online February 2016 doi:10.1192/bjpo.bp.115.002147


Abstract

Embodying self-compassion within virtual reality and its effects on patients with depression

Background Self-criticism is a ubiquitous feature of psychopathology and can be combatted by increasing levels of self-compassion. However, some patients are resistant to self-compassion.

Aims To investigate whether the effects of self-identification with virtual bodies within immersive virtual reality could be exploited to increase self-compassion in patients with depression.

Method We developed an 8-minute scenario in which 15 patients practised delivering compassion in one virtual body and then experienced receiving it from themselves in another virtual body.

Results In an open trial, three repetitions of this scenario led to significant reductions in depression severity and self-criticism, as well as to a significant increase in self-compassion, from baseline to 4-week follow-up. Four patients showed clinically significant improvement.

Conclusions The results indicate that interventions using immersive virtual reality may have considerable clinical potential and that further development of these methods preparatory to a controlled trial is now warranted.

Declaration of interest
None.

“Embodying self-compassion within virtual reality and its effects on patients with depression” by Caroline J. Falconer, Aitor Rovira, John A. King, Paul Gilbert, Angus Antley, Pasco Fearon, Neil Ralph, Mel Slater, and Chris R. Brewin in British Journal of Psychiatry Open. Published online February 2016 doi:10.1192/bjpo.bp.115.002147

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