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Virtual reality treatment helps depression patients in study

The virtual reality experience helped patients become less critical and more compassionate toward themselves, researchers reported.

By Stephen Feller
Virtual reality treatment helps depression patients in study
In a virtual reality environment, patients were asked to counsel a distressed child and then received counseling from an adult as if they were the distressed child. Nine of 15 patients in the small study reported their depression symptoms declined after the virtual reality treatment, researchers report. Photo by University College London

LONDON, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- Depression patients who interacted with characters in a virtual reality environment were less critical and more compassionate toward themselves, researchers found in a small study in England.

Researchers at University College London found some of the self-directed negativity of people feel in depression can be mitigated through role-playing in virtual reality.

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Dropping people into an immersive electronic world using a virtual reality headset gives them an opportunity to experience different scenarios -- in this case, by embodying either somebody comforting a distressed child or by receiving the comfort as the distressed child.

Previous research has shown alcoholics can be helped by placing them in virtual situations where they may be tempted to drink but are taught to resist the urge, as well as help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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"The aim was to teach patients to be more compassionate towards themselves and less self-critical, and we saw promising results," Chris Brewin, a researchers at University College London, said in a press release. "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."

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For the study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open, researchers recruited 15 patients between the ages of 23 and 61 who have depression.

After putting on a virtual reality helmet, participants were asked first to act as an adult counseling a distressed child. The participants then were made to be the child and heard an adult deliver their own compassionate words to them. The eight-minute therapy session was repeated three times over a three-week period, with a follow-up a month later.

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Nine of the patients reported reduced depressive symptoms a month after the three sessions, and four reported a "clinically significant" decline in their depression.

The researchers said more work needs to be done, including a larger study with a control group to show if, or how, the therapy improved depression in the patients -- they have high hopes for virtual reality as therapeutic solution, though.

"If a substantial benefit is seen, then this therapy could have huge potential," Brewin said. "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."

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