Virtual reality is being used to treat paranoia with tube train simulations

By Kitty Knowles 5 May 2016
Virtual reality used to treat paranoia patients by researchers at Oxford University.

The "transformative" virtual reality treatment involves placing patients in uncomfortable virtual simulations such as riding the London Underground.

The mental health clinics of the future could soon sport virtual treatment rooms, as a new study shows how VR can treat severe paranoia for the first time.

The Medical Research Council-backed research has been carried out by researchers at Oxford University who said the “transformative” virtual treatment resulted in “major reductions in paranoia”.

Treating paranoia

Paranoia, the irrational fear that others are trying to harm you, is often associated with patients who have conditions like schizophrenia, and is experienced by 1-2% of the population.

People who suffer from paranoia often find it difficult to be in environments with other unknown individuals, making simple tasks that involve leaving the house incredibly distressing.

Now scientists have found that patients who role-play uncomfortable situations, like travelling on public transport, in virtual reality can overcome their mistrust of others, not only in VR, but in the real world.

A virtual elevator simulation.

The Oxford University study

The Oxford University study, published today in the British Journal of Psychiatry, used placed patients in two different virtual reality simulations: one on the London Underground, and another in a shared elevator.

A total of 30 patients took part, each trialling the treatment for 30 minutes.

One group of participants were allowed to use common coping mechanisms, such as reducing eye contact and social interaction during the simulation, while the other were encouraged to approach virtual strangers and interact with them.

As patients progressed, more and more virtual people were added to the respective simulations – to the point where patients were immersed in a jam-packed tube train.

Patients would access the therapy in a virtual reality treatment room.

“Transformative” findings

Over 50% of patients the group who fully engaged with virtual strangers showed substantial reductions in their paranoid delusions and no longer had severe paranoia at the end of the testing day.

There were even benefits for the group that were allowed to avoid interaction, with 20% no longer having severe paranoia at the end of the testing day.

Patients were found to be substantially less distressed when entering real world situation, such as going to the local shop.

The study suggests that further research is needed to see if the benefits are maintained beyond the testing day.

A major breakthrough

The research team, led by Professor Daniel Freeman from Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry, said that the study showed that it was possible for people with paranoia to ‘re-learn’ that day-to-day situations are safe and could have massive repercussions.

“Paranoia all too often leads to isolation, unhappiness, and profound distress,” said Professor Freeman, the study lead at Oxford University Department of Psychiatry and clinical psychologist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust. “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.”

“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.”

Find out more about the virtual reality study from Professor Daniel Freeman in the video below…