A limited proof of concept study using virtual reality (VR) for treatment of depression was recently published by researchers from the University College of London and Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies.

In this study, 15 patients with depression, ages 23-61, utilized a head-mounted display and participated in a virtual scenario. The study aimed to investigate if immersive virtual reality could help improve self-compassion in patients with depression. Study subjects first played the role of comforting a crying infant, then roles were reversed and they were presented with their own expression of comfort, over 3 scenarios.

Multiple outcome measures were utilized, including the Self-Compassion and Self-Criticism Scales, the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9, primary outcome measure), and Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale. Initial findings were reportedly positive with a majority of patients showing improvement, utilizing the PHQ-9 measurement of outcomes in depression treatments. This was noted both upon completion of the virtual reality environment scenario and at 4-week follow up. However, only 4 of the patients showed clinically significant improvement out of the group of 15 for the PHQ-9, which requires a decrease by at least 5 points. Self-criticism scores and Self-Compassion scores also both improved, although the amount required for clinical significant change is not listed. Furthermore, the baseline Self-Compassion scores were already similar to the general population.

It’s interesting to note the choice of virtual reality device (the NVisor SX1111) was not one of the much-discussed consumer-grade products, such as the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, Google Cardboard, or Gear VR.

Virtual reality offers tremendous potential for treating a variety of medical conditions, thanks in part to the rapidly-increasing immersive nature of the technology. Possible applications include not just mental health, but also physical rehabilitation, pain management, and more. Several companies are investigating such uses, including VRecover (focusing on developing VR rehab exercises back or limb injuries). Further details on why less than 30% of the patients benefited from the intervention would be helpful in better localizing which subsets may most improve with virtual reality treatment. This very limited study may serve as a useful data point for further virtual reality studies in mental health, but is too limited at this time to offer a new venue for depression treatment.