6. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is one of the most pervasive mental health conditions in the United States, as well as among the most challenging to treat. Today, many experts are beginning to agree that exposure therapy can help, and virtual reality can provide that exposure in a physically safe, controlled environment.
It’s a big issue to tackle: Experts say one in three people who experience an extremely traumatic event will develop the condition, and 2013 statistics report 69,000 brand new cases of PTSD diagnosed in veterans from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, What’s more, according to an NBC interview with USC Davis School of Gerontology professor Albert “Skip” Rizzo, the condition can lie dormant for years, meaning those who may have developed PTSD decades ago can begin to experience the worst symptoms much later in life.
Anything could trigger an episode in which the person with PTSD is transported back to the moment the traumatic event or events happened. It seems counterintuitive to purposely put a PTSD sufferer back in that place, but experts say using virtual reality creates a world where people with the condition can exert control over the situation, therefore experiencing a sense of resolution.
“Exposure therapy is an ideal match with VR,” Rizzo told NBC. “You can place people in provocative environments and systematically control the stimulus presentation. In some sense it’s the perfect application because we can take evidence-based treatments and use it as a tool to amplify the effect of the treatment.”
7. Conversion Disorder Treatment
The Stanford University School of Medicine and the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab started working last year on a small clinical trial investigating the possibilities for virtual reality in treating conversion disorder. Participants will use special software developed by the VHIL, combined with the Oculus Rift, to inhabit a virtual avatar body.
Conversion disorder, also known as functional neurological symptom disorder, is a condition wherein mental or emotional stresses are converted into physical symptoms.
"It’s kind of the roots of psychiatry," Dr. Kim Bullock, a clinical associate professor of pyschiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and the lead researcher on the study, told MobiHealthNews. "Everyone’s very curious about this subject because it’s the intersection between mind, body, culture, environment. It kind of embodies everything that we’re trying to figure out. But very little research has been done on this subject. There’s no big pharmaceutical money behind it and there’s really a lack of awareness among providers about how ubiquitous this disorder is, because it kind of infiltrates every medical specialty."
Bullock said that neuro-imaging studies have shown that in people with conversion disorder, a part of the prefrontal cortex that normally inhibits the amygdala from taking control of the motor-sensory cortex doesn't function like it should. Most existent treatments focus on calming down the amygdala so it doesn't become overactive and "hijack" motor functions or senses, and VR could serve a similar function.
8. Smoking Cessation
Redwood City, California-based MindCotine is using virtual reality to address one of the oldest and most difficult health hazardous habits on the planet: smoking.
Since smoking is more than a physiological need, the Argentina-born cofounders Cristian Waitman, Nicolas Rosencovich and Emilo Goldenhersch say, so their VR program – which launched on Kickstarter in early June – brings together mindfulness, biofeedback and other elements of psychological techniques like immersion to help prospective non-smokers change their behavior to change their habit.
Technically speaking, it means an app, a cardboard headset and a growing community of users to act as a support system and research opportunity. Users download the app, which features guided meditation and calming imagery to encourage introspection before going on to an animated smoking experience, complete with sitting down with a cigarette in hand. It’s meant to be used 20 minutes per day along with tools and resources in the app to help deal with nicotine withdrawal systems.
9. Dealing with Fear
Death is an inevitable part of life, yet many struggle to accept that reality. While some may prefer to not think about it at all, others believe facing this fact of life head-on is the only way to truly reduce fear. Of course, thanks to virtual reality, people need not put themselves purposely in harm’s way in order to experience a near-death experience.
Researchers at the University of Barcelona used an Oculus Rift headset to create a virtual reality simulation called “the full body ownership illusion,” which uses the image of a human body the wearer assimilates to until they feel the body is their own. After they get used to that view, the VR headset shifts to a third-person viewpoint, which is mimics the experience some describe as “out-of-body incidents.” The small study, which was published in PLOS One, showed a lower anxiety about death.
VR can also help with children’s fear of needles. Pediatricians administering vaccines may try direct their young patients’ attention to colorful posters or don a puppet to get them focused on something – anything – other than the shot they were being given. But, this being 2017, a recent pilot study suggests doctor’s office child diversions may start going virtual.
In a study of 244 children at Sansum Clinic locations in Santa Barbara and Lompoc, California, roughly half of the children were given virtual reality goggles to view ocean scenes while getting their seasonal flu shot. Parents and clinicians for both groups were surveyed after, and reported the VR group felt less pain and fear than those braving it without.
As innovative as the idea sounds, it didn’t come from an industry insider keenly aware of the way such technology has been taking off. Dr. Mark Silverberg, the clinic’s pediatrician, got the idea from his 15-year-old daughter.
10. Concussion Assessment
Virtual reality companies in the entertainment space are interested in eye tracking because it offers another hands-free way to interact with a virtual environment. But in the healthcare space, eye tracking has potentially lifesaving applications.
SyncThink, a Boston-based company that just last week won the grand prize at the Pulse@MassChallenge startup contest, is applying VR and eye-tracking to assess ability to focus as an indicator of concussion damage. This can be used to assess the extent of the damage immediately after an injury, or to track recovery practice with an objective measure.
The company has been working on eye tracking or concussions for about 10 years and has a partnership with the US Army. But VR allowed them to create a much more accessible version of the product.
“Eye tracking’s not new, it’s been around for about 30 years in all kinds of configurations,” CTO Daniel Beeler told MobiHealthNews. “We thought about two and a half years ago that VR is the perfect way to commercialize this in a cost-effective way and bring it to market. Eye-tracking has traditionally been the domain of large instruments in laboratory settings. The thing about VR is it’s a cost-effective way to introduce a mobile platform with eye-tracking.”
Right now, the platform is being used by professional sports teams and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. They’re currently focused on making the assessment even more useful.
“We can use this technology to help pinpoint the exact type of injury,” Beeler said. “Head injury is complicated. A force to the head could involve brain damage, it could involve inner ear issues like balance, it could be other issues that produce similar symptoms. We want to provide objective technology to identify the specific issue at hand and improve outcomes.”