How VR Is Transforming Healthcare
Earlier this week, a groundbreaking study demonstrated the potential of VR as a treatment for paranoia, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Sometimes, it’s tempting, to consider virtual reality as something that’s entirely frivolous. Its main uses seem to be for making entertainment – predominantly games – more immersive. That, however, is not the case though, and just in the same way 3D printing is offering unexpected benefits to the medical profession, virtual reality could soon follow suit.
This week a groundbreaking study from Oxford University discovered that a VR simulation of crowded tube trains and lifts has the ability to reduce feelings of paranoia in those who would struggle to function in similar real world situations.
The system utilized a very old therapeutic technique: exposure. The theory, basically, is that people who have developed psychological aversion to something that’s actually harmless should be gradually introduced to the object of their fear, ramping up the exposure in small quantities until they’re able to cope without stress. That can apply to anything from social situations to spiders. While patients can be challenged to do this themselves between therapy sessions, the advantage of VR is that it not only allows for harder-to-simulate situations (the inside of a plane, or seeing a scary spider), but it also allows the therapist to be on hand to guide the patient through their experience.
Max Ortiz Catalan, a PhD candidate at Chalmers University was able to noticeably improve the condition for Swedish amputee Ture Johanson, who had lost half of his right arm in a car accident, by hooking him to an augmented reality game where real world movements controlled onscreen actions.
“The leading theory is that the brain map of your own body changes after an amputation. This means that amputees, whether it’s a limb, breast, nose… anything, they can suffer phantom pain. What we are trying to do is potentially restore the original map, by allowing the patient to use the missing limb, and therefore get rid of the pain,” Catalan said.
VR as a super-effective pain killer
Virtual reality can be used to distract from ongoing pain. Take burn victims requiring a change of bandages, for example. Snow World is a simple game aimed to distract burn victims from the real world. “Because pain has such a strong psychological component to it, psychological treatments can be used to counteract the pain,” Snow World’s co-creator Hunter Hoffman said.
The game is intentionally made simple, because anything more complicated would be difficult for patients to concentrate on, which is understandable, given their circumstances. But it genuinely seems to work. “When I was in SnowWorld, I didn’t think about the pain at all. There was pretty much no pain – there were at some points, but the most part there was no pain,” said one patient.
Indeed, brain scans confirm the effectiveness, with Hoffman claiming a 50% reduction in brain activity when compared to those undergoing treatment without.
VR helps PTSD sufferers live with their trauma
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a form of severe anxiety triggered by flashbacks to a traumatic event the sufferer had been involved in. For example, soldiers who have seen horrendous things on the battlefield, or survivors of assaults. These triggers don’t necessarily come from the original situation: a former soldier’s memory of a particularly horrid battlefield could be triggered by a crowded street, so it can severely impact how sufferers live their lives.
Introducing PTSD sufferers to computerized versions of their trauma, researchers have observed some positive results in early studies. One such simulation, dubbed “Virtual Iraq”, is built on the game “Full Spectrum Warrior” and allows former soldiers to relive the battlefield in a safe environment, making them able to cope better with potential triggers in the real world.
VR creates a controlled virtual environment for alcoholics
A South Korean study from last year suggests that virtual environments could be used as a key part of therapy for alcoholics. The study involved introducing participants to three virtual environments: the first was a relaxing area, the second involved a high-risk scenario where almost everyone was drinking and the third featured “the sights, sounds and smells of people getting sick from too much alcohol.”
At the end of the therapy, the researchers observed that participants had reduced levels of brain sensitivity to alcoholic stimuli. More research is required though, as the study was limited to just 12 people.
VR as social cognition training for young autistic adults
Researchers at the University of Texas have been working with young autistic adults, giving them the ability to practice social skills within virtual environments, such as job interviews, blind dates or meeting a new neighbor. The experience boosts participants’ ability to read social cues and recognize “the unspoken intentions behind a behavior” or to share “an opinion in a socially acceptable way.”
“After 10 sessions of the VR-SCT intervention, scores significantly increased on some measures of verbal and non-verbal recognition and theory of mind,” the paper concluded.
Given how VR headsets are selling out faster than manufacturers can create them, the future looks bright for mass adoption, and that could well mean that an Oculus Rift looks just as natural in the doctor’s surgery as stethoscopes and needles in the near future.