A team of researchers at Oxford University have used virtual reality (VR) devices to help treat patients suffering from paranoia, in a further demonstration of how VR technology could help health care.
Thirty patients took part in the study, which was funded by the U.K. Medical Research Council. Using VR, the patients were confronted with simulations of situations they would normally find difficult, for instance standing in a lift surrounded by people, in order to relearn when a situation was safe.
The patients were then able to confront their fears as more and more computer generated characters were added to the scene. Around 20 percent of the patients no longer had severe paranoia at the end of the test; this figure rose to over 50 percent when the patients were encouraged to drop their usual defensive behaviours.
"Paranoia all too often leads to isolation, unhappiness, and profound distress. But the exceptionally positive immediate results for the patients in this study show a new route forward in treatment," said Professor Freeman, the study lead at Oxford University Department of Psychiatry, in a press release.
Dr David Lewis, a psychiatrist and founder of www.askdrdavid.co.uk which helps treat anxiety and phobias, said he thought VR could also be useful in the treatment of phobias.
"We tend to see something like a phobia as being a learned response," he told CNBC in a phone interview. "With a phobic, they have learned to associate a fear response with something which is not objectively dangerous."
Phobias can be treated by teaching the patient relaxation techniques and then gradually exposing them to their fear, which can be a very slow process.
"What you could do with VR, which I'm very keen on exploring, would be you could actually put people in situations in a safe environment and then they could progressively desensitise themselves by gradual exposure," Dr Lewis said.
Several VR devices are being released this year, including the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, and many have predicted that, as well as transforming gaming, they will have an impact on tourism, education as well as health care.
"Virtual reality is proving extremely effective in the assessment and treatment of mental health problems, said Dr Kathryn Adcock, head of neurosciences and mental health at the Medical Research Council, in a press release. "This study shows the potential of its application to a major psychiatric problem."