Treatments that are real in virtual worlds

It is now easier and less expensive to treat patients in virtual environments, and the variety of conditions that the technology can treat has increased.

12/21/20221 min read

A door opens, you enter inside a small closet, and the walls begin to close in around you, trapping you inside. You're sitting quietly in a lobby when a stranger walks in, followed by another, as your nervousness grows. Machine gun fire erupts and explosions send debris flying while you're on patrol in a small Afghan settlement.

These aren't the latest video game releases for your living room system. Instead, they're virtual reality (VR) scenarios designed to immerse therapists and their patients in secure, completely programmable worlds while they work together to overcome phobias, enhance social skills, and recover from traumatic events.

Since then, VR has been used to replace imaginal or real-life exposure to threatening stimuli in the treatment of more than two dozen phobias (Rothbaum, B.O., et al., American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 152, No. 4, 1995; Rothbaum, B.O., et al., American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 152, No. 4, 1995; Rothbaum, B.O., et However, it has only been in the last few years that the technology has progressed sufficiently and the cost has fallen low enough for VR to begin to make its way into more research labs and therapists' clinics. Researchers have also begun developing therapeutic VR programs for a growing number of diseases, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction, and autism, thanks to technological advancements.

"Virtual reality has immense potential," says Skip Rizzo, PhD, a research professor of gerontology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California (USC). "It's exactly what psychologists have dreamed about—a controlled stimuli setting where you can make things happen, watch patient responses, and trigger emotions in ways that we could never accomplish in a clinical office."