Virtual Reality Therapy Promising for Agoraphobia

A novel virtual reality (VR) intervention significantly reduces agoraphobia in patients with psychosis, new research suggests.

The cognitive-behavioral therapy-based treatment was particularly effective for patients with the highest level of avoidance of everyday situations.

“Virtual reality is an inherently therapeutic medium which could be extremely useful in mental health services,” study investigator Daniel Freeman, PhD, DClinPsy, professor of clinical psychology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, told Medscape Medical News. “This intervention is coming; the question really is when.”

The study was published online April 5 in The Lancet Psychiatry.

Real-World Feel

Immersive VR involves interactive three-dimensional computer-generated environments that produce the sensation of being in the real world.

For patients with psychosis, dealing with the real world can be an anxious experience, particularly if they experience verbal or auditory hallucinations.

Some may develop agoraphobia and start to avoid places or situations. A virtual environment allows patients to practice dealing with situations that make them anxious or uncomfortable and to learn to reengage in everyday situations.

The study included 346 patients diagnosed with schizophrenia or a related disorder. The mean age of the patients was 37.2 years (67% men, 85% White). Most were single and unemployed. All were receiving treatment for psychosis and had difficulty going out because of anxiety.

The researchers randomly assigned 174 participants to an automated VR cognitive therapy intervention (gameChange) plus usual care and 172 to usual care alone. Trial assessors were blinded to group allocation.

The gameChange intervention was delivered in six sessions that were conducted over a 6-week period. Each session involved 30 minutes of VR.

A session begins when participants enter the virtual therapist’s office. They are met by a coach who guides them through the therapy. They can choose from among six VR social situations. These include a café, a general practice waiting room, a pub, a bus, opening the front door of their home onto the street, or entering a small local shop.

Each scenario has five levels of difficulty that are based on the number and proximity of people in the social situation and the degree of social interaction. Users can work their way through these various levels.

The virtual sessions took place in patients’ homes in about 50% of cases; the remainder were conducted in the clinic. A mental health worker was in the room during the therapy.

Between virtual sessions, participants were encouraged to apply what they learned in the real world, for example, by spending time in a pub.

Usual care typically included regular visits from a community mental health worker and occasional outpatient appointments with a psychiatrist.

Widely Applicable?

The primary outcome was the eight-item Oxford Agoraphobic Avoidance Scale (O-AS) questionnaire. This scale assesses distress and avoidance related to performing difficult everyday tasks.

The researchers assessed patients at baseline, at the conclusion of the 6-week treatment, and at 26 weeks.

Compared with the group that received usual care alone, the VR therapy group demonstrated a significant reduction in both agoraphobic avoidance (O-AS adjusted mean difference, -0.47; 95% CI, -0.88 to -0.06; Cohen’s d, -0.18; P = .026) and distress (-4.33; 95% CI, -7.78 to -0.87; Cohen’s d, -0.26; P = .014) at 6 weeks.

This translates to being able to do about 1.5 more activities on the O-AS, such as going to a shopping center alone, said Freeman.

Further analyzes showed that VR therapy was especially effective for patients with severe agoraphobia. On average, these patients could complete two more O-AS activities at 26 weeks, said Freeman.

The authors believe the intervention worked by reducing defense behaviors, such as avoiding eye contact and fearful thoughts.

There was no significant difference in occurrence of adverse events between the study groups. These events, which were mild, transient, and did not affect the outcome, included side effects such as claustrophobia when using headsets.

The intervention would likely work for patients with agoraphobia who do not have psychosis, said Freeman. “Agoraphobia is often the final common pathway in lots of mental health conditions.”

Automated VR not only addresses the problem of patients being too afraid to leave home for in-person treatment but may also help address the shortage of trained mental health care providers.

The intervention is currently available at pilot implementation sites in the UK and a few sites in the US, he said.

“Cool, Interesting”

Commenting on the research for Medscape Medical NewsArash Javanbakht, MD, associate professor (clinical scholar), Wayne State University, Detroit, described the study as “cool and interesting.”

However, he said, the findings were not surprising, because exposure therapy has been proven effective in treating phobias. Because of the significant lack of access to exposure therapy providers, “the more mechanized, the more automated therapies that can be easily used, the better,” he said.

He noted the VR therapy did not require a high level of training; the study just used peer support staff who sat next to those using the technology.

He also liked the fact that the intervention “focused on things that in reality impair a person’s life,” for example, not being able to go to the grocery store.

However, he wondered why the investigators studied VR for patients with psychosis and agoraphobia and not for those with just agoraphobia.

In addition, he noted that in part, the treatment’s efficacy was partly due to having someone next to the participants offering support, which the control group didn’t have.

Javanbakht has researched augmented therapy (AR) for delivering exposure therapy. This technology, which mixes virtually created objects with reality and allows users to move around their real environment, is newer and more advanced than VR but is more complicated, he said.

He explained that AR is more appropriate for delivering exposure therapy in certain situations.

“The basis of exposure therapy is ‘extinction learning’ exposing a person to a fear cue over and over again until the fear response is extinguished,” and extinction learning is “context-dependent,” Javanbakht said.

“VR is good when you need to create the whole context and environment, and AR is good when you need to focus on specific objects or cues in the environment,” for example, spiders or snakes, he said.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Health Research. Freeman is a founder and a non-executive director of Oxford VR, which will commercialize the therapy. He holds equity in and receives personal payments from Oxford VR; holds a contract for his university team to advise Oxford VR on treatment development; and reports grants from the National Institute for Health Research, the Medical Research Council, and the International Foundation. Javanbakht has patent for an AR exposure therapy.

Lancet Psychiatry. Published online April 5, 2022. Full text

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