Can virtual reality help treat depression?

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Virtual reality may help with depression, but is it just due to the placebo effect? Image credit: Maskot/Getty Images.
  • Virtual reality treatment for major depressive disorder is as effective as a current first-line therapy in a new study from Stanford University.
  • There is some suggestion in the study, however, that the virtual reality system’s benefits may be related to the placebo effect.
  • Further investigation is warranted, and may result in virtual reality being added to existing therapies.

A new study investigates the use of extended reality headsets in treating major depressive disorder.

The authors of the study — which appears in JMIR Mental Health — found that virtual reality treatment showed promise, producing results equivalent to current telehealth therapy for depression.

Extended reality (XR) places a headset wearer in a synthesized virtual reality (VR) environment of sight and sound.

The current study compared the efficacy of one of the the current first-line intervention for major depressive disorder (MDD), behavioral activation therapy, with an extended reality-enhanced version the study refers to as “XR-BA.”

The researchers suggest that XR-BA therapy may offer more enjoyable treatment, thus encouraging patients to continue receiving it.

The primary measure used in the study were the participants’ scores in their responses to a Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) conducted via telephone. Higher PHQ-9 scores indicated more severe MDD.

The study involved 26 participants who were randomly assigned to receive either a 3-week, 4-session course of behavioral activation therapy, or to a group receiving similarly configured sessions of XR-BA therapy. The XR-BA participants were outfitted with Meta Quest 2 virtual reality headsets.

Participants’ mean age was 50.3 years, plus or minus 17 years. Of these, 73% were women, 23% men, and 4% nonbinary or of a third gender.

Both groups exhibited a similar and statistically significant reduction in their PHQ-9 scores, as well as in the severity of their symptoms, between the beginning and end of the trial.

Among the XR-BA group, PHQ-9 scores dropped even before the first session, suggesting positive feelings regarding the upcoming trial, and a placebo effect.

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