As technology and reality continue to merge, scientists have performed plenty of experiments to gauge the efficiency of recent technological feats regarding health. Physicians and surgeons have relied on technological advancements to accommodate their patients. While moguls like Mark Zuckerberg plan to usher in a new era of human interaction online with the metaverse, scientists have theorized about the benefits that virtual reality could have on mental health.
Conducted in 1995, American psychologist Barbara Rothbaum, along with her peers, conducted experiments regarding the effectiveness of virtual reality in treating acrophobia. Rothbaum’s experiment saw twenty college students with acrophobia randomly assigned to two different groups, with seventeen of the twenty completing the trial.
The control group consisted of seven of the seventeen students, while the other ten were placed in the experimental group. Before the trial, the subjects were given questionnaires regarding the severity of their acrophobia. The questionnaire included a rating system ranging from zero to six for anxiety and zero to three for avoidance, with a possible sum of one-hundred-eighty and sixty, respectively.
The subjects were equally treated before the trial was conducted, ultimately strengthening the validity of the results. Furthermore, the questionnaire alongside the Behavioral Avoidance Test would provide researchers with evidence from the subjects and an examination that would corroborate their submissions.
The trial took place for eight weeks, with each session conducted individually, providing researchers with an ample amount of time to document changes in the subject’s acrophobia.
The experiment's outcome points to a significant change in the treatment group, connoting that the subjects were alleviated or made immense progress in their aversion to heights with the help of virtual reality. The control group, however, saw prior test results line up with final results, signifying minimal change.
As a result of such a marvelous feat, other researchers sought to use virtual reality to remedy psychiatric disorders and other phobias. In 2019, a group of South Korean psychiatrists examined multiple instances of virtual reality treatment with a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and more. The experiments analyzed include a 4D model and an avatar, or virtual manifestation of the subject in the virtual world.
In doing so, the psychiatrists also account for side effects of VR treatment, such as motion sickness and dry eyes, which may occur while in a motion chair that immerses the subject into the virtual world.
For instance, Israeli researchers led by Glen M. Doniger used VR treatment in 2018 to help middle-aged adults with a high risk of Alzheimer's retain cognitive function.
Over twelve weeks, 45-minute training sessions were conducted twice a week before a three-month post-training regimen. The 125 randomly selected participants were divided into four groups: one experimental, one no-contact control, and two active control groups. All groups were researched for the primary and secondary cognitive and neurological outcomes.
VR training tasks included a supermarket simulation where participants were instructed to collect items in different controlled environments. Duties include shopping for products until a limit of 100 shekels was reached, shopping for particular items on a list, and catching balls while moving quickly on the road. The experiment's results saw significant growth in cognitive functions, potentially minimizing the risks of Alzheimer's.
A similar conclusion arose when Olivier Percie du Sert and his fellow researchers evaluated the impact of VR treatment on schizophrenia. Conducted over seven weeks in 2018, a random sample of fifteen participants was selected and went through with the experiment. Conclusions of the experiment point to significant improvements in alleviating “auditory, visual hallucinations, depressive symptoms, and quality of life” like trials dealing with anxiety and flight phobia.
The success of such trials highlights the benefits that can be provided by VR treatment. From veterans struggling with PTSD to adolescents with a myriad of phobias, researchers were able to offer alternative remedies to disorders challenging to cope with. Nonetheless, these successes do not arrive without risks and pitfalls of their own. As a result of its technologically-dependent trials, VR treatment can be expensive.
Equipment alone would be expensive, yet one must also factor in therapist training, and such expenses would make potential operations exclusive. Given the global mental health crisis, inaccessible treatment may do more harm than good. While there would be patients receiving treatment, bias in the medical world would ultimately bar many potential patients for the benefit of the few.
Nonetheless, researchers seem confident that prices would eventually decline because of how technology improves at a rapid pace. Thus, older models would become available to the general population.
All in all, researchers from across the world have been able to remedy disorders and phobias with virtual reality successfully. The exciting possibility of harnessing virtual is a great leap forward in the medical world. Therapists and researchers can control unpredicted events, considering the patient’s comfortability while providing them with the utmost care.
In a world where Big Tech slowly incorporates virtual reality into their social media platforms, medical researchers and doctors are likely to build on their research, bringing us closer to a reality where VR treatment is commonplace.
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