A new study from researchers at Oxford University has used a virtual reality-based treatment to help people overcome a clinically significant fear of heights. The VR treatment is the first to demonstrate the effectiveness of a completely automated therapy guided by a computer-generated virtual therapist that responds to the patient's voice.

More than a simple medium for entertainment, modern virtual reality is being seriously investigated as a treatment model for a variety of phobias and psychological disorders. From a therapy for arachnophobia to a way to get over the anxiety of public speaking, VR is offering a variety of exciting new therapeutic directions for improving mental health.

Most of these prior VR psychological experiments involved a therapist being present to directly guide a patient through a specific experience, but this new Oxford study demonstrates an entirely self-contained model with sessions led by a computer-generated therapist.

Subjects in the experimental group received six 30-minute VR sessions over a two-week period. These sessions were guided by a virtual coach named Nic, who directed participants through a series of activities designed to affirm the safety of experiences that the subjects perceived as dangerous or anxiety inducing.

"We designed the treatment to be as imaginative, entertaining, and easy to navigate as possible," explains Daniel Freeman, one of the team leaders on the project. "So the tasks the participants were asked to complete included crossing a rickety walkway, rescuing a cat from a tree in the building's atrium, painting a picture and playing a xylophone on the edge of a balcony, and finally riding a virtual whale around the atrium space!"

The results were extraordinarily impressive with the VR participants showing, on average, a 68 percent reduction in their fear of heights compared to a randomly assigned control group that received no VR therapy. The automated nature of a treatment method such as this demonstrates a way to potentially roll out widespread therapies that don't need the extra cost and resources demanded by having trained therapists present.

"The results are extraordinarily good," says Freeman. "We were confident the treatment would prove effective, but the outcomes exceeded our expectations. Over three quarters of the participants receiving the VR treatments showed at least a halving of their fear of heights. Our study demonstrates that virtual reality can be an extremely powerful means to deliver psychological therapy."

The study was not without its limitations, however, particularly as the results were determined by questionnaires and self-reporting instead of real behavioral tests at heights. Long-term effects are also unclear and further study needs to be done on larger groups of people with clinically diagnosed acrophobia.

But, the implications of this kind of automated VR therapy are fascinating. The researchers suggest that it is uncertain how many other mental health conditions and phobias this kind of VR therapy would be transferable to, but the potential benefits certainly demand more research. The ability to have VR-guided programs that can clinically assist millions of people remotely without the need for direct therapist oversight is undeniably compelling.

"But what's even more exciting is the prospect of using VR to tackle serious and widespread mental health problems, such as depression, psychosis, and addictions," says Freeman. "Rigorous testing will be vital but it feels as though we may be looking at a big part of the future of mental health treatments."

The study was published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry.

View gallery - 2 images