Virtual reality (VR) is becoming mainstream. This year was coined “year of the VR” at CES. VR headsets are now available at your local electronics store. Although it has been used for healthcare purposes for many years, use of VR in healthcare still cannot be qualified as generalized or widespread. However, VR is rapidly expanding into the healthcare realm and, according to a recent Global Industry Analysts report, the global VR healthcare market will be reaching US$ 3.8 billion by 2020.
Currently, a main focus of VR applications in healthcare is in the treatment of fear related disorders such as Dr. Cornelius Gross, deputy head of EMBL Monterotondo, explained in a 2014 EMBL Insight Lecture, it is easier to recognize and compare fear than it is other emotions.
Indeed, VR provide safe, private, controllable environments for exposure therapy, on the most efficient methods for treating phobias. Since, by definition, VR environments are fully controllable (as opposed to exposure in the “real” world) it provides a secure set up for the patient undergoing treatment that can be customized to his or her specific needs with a few mouse clicks, and is private i.e. keeps the patient’s treatment confidential. Another important advantage of VR is that, exposure therapy requiring repeated sessions, it is more cost effective than in vivo exposure therapy.
Augmented reality (AR), a more cost effective version of VR, and can oftentimes be just as effective as VR. In AR, the subject is put in a real world environment, but aided with an AR device such as the Google Glass. In some cases, AR is even the better solution over VR.
VR is also used for training purposes. Just as for patient treatment, VR provides a safe, controllable environment in which healthcare professionals can learn and practice skills for which it would be difficult or even dangerous to do so in vivo: who would want to be a heart surgeon’s first patient ?
Other areas where VR is used include pain management, treatment of PTSD, phantom limb pain, brain injury assessment and rehab, social cognition training and more.
In many instances where VR is used, the brain is the source of the problem being treated. VR and other cognitive behavioral therapies offer efficient, non invasive diagnosis and treatment possibilities, the full potential of which is far having been reached.
Other promising methods of treating phobias, for example, include optogenetics, whereby a simple beam of light is used to selectively and very precisely activate or deactivate the neurons implicated in triggering the phobia, as demonstrated in mice by Pr. Christine Denny, at Columbia University Medical Center. But this is another subject.
As always, comments, questions, feedback are welcome.