VR treatment can help overcome acrophobia, says European research team

VR therapy through a ‘virtual coach’ is enough to overcome acrophobia or fear of heights, one of the most common fears in the world, according to a new European research study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry last week.


Psychological therapy delivered by a virtual reality coach can help people with a clinically diagnosed fear of heights overcome their fear, according to a randomised controlled trial of 100 people published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal last week.

The study is the first trial to show that a VR treatment can produce the desired results without recourse to a trained human therapist, providing a proof of concept for how some psychological interventions might be offered in future.

Acrophobia is the most common phobia today, with one in five people reporting having had a fear of heights during their lifetime, with one in 20 people clinically diagnosed with the condition.

In previous research, those with a fear of heights used virtual reality training in sessions with a therapist. The study found that it was as effective as exposure to heights in real life and that the reduced fear lasted for at least a year.

In the new study, involving researchers from both Oxford and Barcelona universities, 100 people with clinically diagnosed fear of heights who were not receiving psychological therapy for it were given either the new automated virtual reality treatment (49 people) or usual care, which was typically no treatment (51 people). On average, participants had suffered a fear of heights for 30 years.

All participants completed questionnaires on the severity of their fear of heights at the start of the trial, at the end of treatment (two weeks later) and at follow-up after four weeks.

At the end of treatment and at follow-up, control group participants rate their fear of heights as remaining similar, but all participants in the virtual reality treatment group rated their fear of heights as having reduced.

By follow-up, 34 or 49 people in this group were not rated as having a fear of heights, compared with none of the 51 people in the control group. There were no adverse events reported by any of the participants.

“Immersive virtual reality therapies that do not need a therapist have the potential to dramatically increase access to psychological interventions,” said the lead author of the study, Professor Daniel Freeman, from the University of Oxford, UK.

“As seen in our clinical trial, virtual reality treatments have the potential to be effective and faster and more appealing for many patients than traditional face-to-face therapies. With our unique automation of therapy using virtual reality there is the opportunity to provide really high quality treatment to many more people at an affordable cost.”

Related information
The Lancet Psychiatry study

Tonya Stewart

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