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Body + BrainBody & Brain

Big Idea of 2015: Healing With Virtual Reality

ByAllison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next

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Virtual reality can take you across the world—or transform it completely. For people with mental illness, VR goes a step further: it can remind them of the world they once knew.

In 2015, we saw a breakdown of more traditional psychiatric models and an upswing in experiments that infuse the recovery process with real-life sensory input. Start-ups like

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Psious are bringing affordable virtual reality to clinicians because they hold unprecedented promise: by tapping into a person’s memories and associations, simulated experiences could alleviate the effects of severe phobias, addiction, depression, and more.

One such program, Home Base , uses virtual reality as a tool for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. The strategy replaces an older approach known as prolonged exposure therapy, which requires combat veterans to recall memories with support from a therapist.

Here’s Christina Couch, reporting for NOVA Next back in April:

But prolonged exposure therapy works best when patients can emotionally and cognitively connect with the memory, which is sometimes a tough challenge. Virtual reality exposure therapy supplements memories by providing visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory cues that can be customized to a patient’s experiences. As combat vets talk through their trauma while immersed in Virtual Iraq or Virtual Afghanistan, therapists can add in pixelated people, scenery or improvised explosions to make the experience match the patient’s memories as closely as possible. Those extra cues can sometimes help patients who have either plateaued or don’t respond to traditional therapies.

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At one point, the military was using virtual reality for training purposes alone. Now, VR is relieving former combat soldiers of PTSD upon their return home.

Virtual reality headsets can offer help not only to victims of mental illness—they can also give friends and family a window into the struggles their loved ones face. Companies like Viscira are producing simulations that attempt to replicate what schizophrenic patients feel and perceive on a daily basis. This kind of technology is like science communication on steroids; it can arguably do much more for the public in terms of transparency and awareness than mere description or advocacy can.

The cost of virtual reality is going down, too—sensors are cheaper, and competitors to the Oculus Rift are on the rise. Here’s Klint Finley, reporting for Wired in March on the state of the VR industry today:

These gadgets still may be too expensive or not immersive enough to bring about the VR revolution we’ve been promised for years. But they’re fine for therapeutic applications. And by bringing down to just a few hundred dollars, these devices are poised to help doctors, therapists and researchers treat more patients than ever before. About 18 percent of the U.S. population suffers from an anxiety disorder and 7 to 8 percent experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Meanwhile, chronic pain affects 100 million people in the U.S. alone.

With this many potential beneficiaries, researchers will likely push the boundaries of VR technology in 2016 to see how far it can go. Read Couch’s NOVA Next feature to learn what cost barriers still exist and how experts will put simulations into widespread practice.

Photo credit: Public Domain