The Stanford University School of Medicine and the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab will collaborate 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.
"What’s really cool about virtual reality is it’s been shown to be helpful with people with post-traumatic stress disorder that have similar areas in the brain that are overactive," Bullock said. "So we thought maybe VR will be a way to desensitize people, figure out what their triggers are, similar to what’s been done with PTSD."
Physical therapy is also a useful treatment for conversion disorder, and virtual reality could be used to deliver physical therapy as well. Bullock said she didn't want to share too many specifics about the intervention, because the study is still in an iterative, exploratory phase. But it involves software and hardware -- some of which is not commercially available -- that monitors the movement of patients' limbs and allows them to control the limbs of an avatar within the virtual world.
It will be a few years before the study produces robust clinical data, but Bullock hopes to be able to share some initial insights and preliminary feasability results by the end of the year. She recognizes that it's early days for the technology, but has high hopes that it could engage and energize her patients.
"Virtual reality is so immersive and it’s kind of fun, so it also offers motivation for people to do things between sessions with their doctor, which often is a moderator of treatment response — how much homework, how much practice people do," she said. "If nothing else it might be more fun. People might engage with it more."