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New Hope for Depression, Virtual reality Shows the Way

In a new hope to depression and the likes of celebrities such as Deepika Padukone and host of many such people around the world, the researchers at Univeristy College of London and ICREA in University of Barcelone have shown the way with the help of Virtual Reality therapy.

The VR therapy was used on 15 depression patients aged 23-61 and 9 of them reported reduced depressive symptoms a month after the therapy, of whom four experienced a clinically significant drop in depression severity.

Patients wore a virtual reality headset to see from the perspective of a life-size ‘avatar’ or virtual body. Seeing this virtual body in a mirror moving in the same way as their own body typically produces the illusion that this is their own body, a phenomenon called ‘embodiment’.

So, embodied in an adult avatar, the participants were trained to express compassion towards a distressed virtual child. As they talked to the child it appeared to gradually stop crying and respond positively to the compassion.

After a while, the patients were embodied in the virtual child and saw the adult avatar deliver their own compassionate words and gestures to them. This brief 8-minute scenario was repeated three times at weekly intervals, and patients were followed up a month later.

“People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives,” explains study lead Professor Chris Brewin, UCL. “In this study, by comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion.

The aim was to teach patients to be more compassionate towards themselves and less self-critical, and we saw promising results."

The study offers a promising hope but not an end in itself. It requires more clinical trials and a larger study. "We now hope to develop the technique further to conduct a larger controlled trial, so that we can confidently determine any clinical benefit," said Mel Slater, professor at the ICREA-University of Barcelona.

"The recent marketing of low-cost home virtual reality systems means that methods such as this could potentially be part of every home and be used on a widespread basis," he said.

The study has been published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open.

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