Fearless future: Virtual reality could help cure paranoia

Lynsey Barber
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VR isn't just for playing games (Source: Getty)

Using a virtual reality (VR) headset could help cure people's paranoia, Oxford researchers have found.

The technology was used in psychological treatment of patients suffering severe paranoia, which affects as much as two per cent of the population in Britain and can leave sufferers unable to leave the house.

The research is a significant step forward in the use of VR technology outside of gaming and entertainment and was hailed as potentially transformative in people's lives.

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Some 30 patients participated in the study, which placed them in the virtual situations - a lift and a train - with characters around them increasing in numbers. The patients had the opportunity to relearn that they were able to feel safe in such situations and manage their anxious feelings.

Half of the participants were told to embrace their normal response to such situations, including defence behaviours, while the other half were encouraged to learn through the situation by approaching the characters.

The researchers found a substantial reduction in the paranoia of the second group and that in real life they felt much less distressed.

“Paranoia all too often leads to isolation, unhappiness, and profound distress. But the exceptionally positive immediate results for the patients in this study show a new route forward in treatment. In just a thirty minute session, those who used the right psychological techniques showed major reductions in paranoia," said University of Oxford psychiatry department professor Daniel Freeman.

“It’s not easy work for patients, since lowering defences takes courage. But as they relearned that being around other people was safe we saw their paranoia begin to melt away. They were then able to go into real social situations and cope far better. This has the potential to be transformative.”

The research is detailed in the latest issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry. More testing is needed, but the Medical Research Council, which backed the study, hailed the potential use of VR for treating major psychiatric problems.

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“Virtual reality is proving extremely effective in the assessment and treatment of mental health problems," said Head of neuroscience and mental health at the group, Dr Kathryn Adcock.

"There is a lot of work to do be done in testing the approach for treating delusions but this study shows a new way forward.”

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