Researches Hope to Use Virtual Reality to Treat Schizophrenia, Psychosis and Bipolar Disorder

Virtual Reality to treat psychosis
A virtual reality head set is on display following an Oculus event in San Francisco, California June 11, 2015. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Researchers in London are hoping virtual reality technology can help medical professionals better understand and treat psychological disorders.

Dr Lucia Valmaggia, a psychological researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College London, is using virtual reality settings to help treat symptoms of schizophrenia, psychosis, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

By wearing a virtual reality headset, patients can be placed in environments that have the potential to cause them stress and trigger symptoms such as anxiety or paranoia, like public transportation or confined and crowded spaces, but in a controlled environment.

A video published by Al Jazeera documents an introductory session using this virtual therapy involving Alika Agidi-Jeffs, a Londoner with bipolar disorder, and Valmaggia.

Valmaggia explains how typical triggers for anxiety and paranoia experienced by the patient in daily life, like thinking someone is talking about them or following them, will occur as they take part in the virtual experience. Patients are told to inform Valmaggia if they feel over stressed or stimulated by any specific experience, in which case the session is immediately stopped so the patient can regain control before continuing.

The patient recounts their reactions to different situations in the virtual world which are documented in order for the psychologist to review them and plan treatment accordingly. Over time, as the psychologist better grasps the specific needs of the patient, the user will be placed in scenarios known to be triggering and so can learn to understand their anxieties and how best to manage them.

The project's goal is to help patients understand why they are triggered by certain situations and how to react to these circumstances in order so they can learn to manage their illness in the real world. Similar technology created by the American company Virtually Better, has been used in research and treatment at the University of Louisville Depression Center which focuses on anxiety and PTSD.

Virtually Better technology places the patient in a traumatic environment in order to treat stress, anxiety and trauma flashbacks in PTSD patients, by examining the traumatic trigger in order to better understand it.

Virtual reality therapy is highly effective when used in tandem with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which helps people to learn new ways of thinking, behaving and reacting to these situations in order to better manage mental health.