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Could virtual reality help people with paranoid delusions overcome their symptoms? A new study offers an exciting look into the kind of mental health treatment we will be seeing a lot more of in the future.

Paranoia — an unfounded fear that other people are deliberately trying to harm the sufferer, caused by a wide range of underlying conditions — is notoriously difficult to treat. The extreme distrust and suspicion paranoia causes can easily lead to a rejection of treatment as well as increasing social isolation, making paranoia rather painful to live with. 

What if a "Holodeck-like" virtual reality system could offer relief? 

Facing Your Fears In A Virtual World

A group of researchers from Oxford University, who published their findings in the British Journal of Psychiatry and were funded by the Medical Research Council, experimented with exactly this. The team was led by professor Daniel Freeman from Oxford's Psychiatry Department. He explained that future mental health clinics may look much more like virtual reality labs where people can enter the situations they fear in the safety of a clinical setting. 

Thirty people suffering from paranoia were the lucky ones to try his new virtual reality system out first. They rode the London Underground and entered a lift — all through advanced "virtual reality glasses", without ever leaving the research setting!

The study subjects were divided into two groups, one simply told to act the way they normally would in these common situations, and the other encouraged to get up close and personal with the virtual reality avatars they encountered. The latter group, the study showed, was effectively able to reduce their paranoid delusions significantly. When patients realized that, as Freeman said, "the avatars weren't going to harm them", it translated into real-life coping skills and lessened fears of persecution.

One patient, Toby, shared: "I feel OK actually now,", adding, "if I do go on a tube train now I'll certainly remember the virtual reality experience" as being positive. 

Professor Freeman was convinced that the virtual reality system could end up helping a great many people suffering from paranoid delusions:

"Paranoia all too often leads to isolation, unhappiness, and profound distress. But the exceptionally positive immediate results for the patients in this study show a new route forward in treatment. In just a 30-minute session, those who used the right psychological techniques showed major reductions in paranoia." 

Virtual Reality: The Mental Health Treatment Of The Future?

Virtual reality is already finding its ways into the mental health profession as a diagnostic and treatment tool for such conditions as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. The Oxford team's new study reveals that not only might it have much wider applications, but virtual reality can offer an incredibly positive and effective experience to patients suffering from conditions that were previously very hard to treat. In future, such virtual reality head-and-eye-sets could even find their way into people's homes, allowing them to work on their personal challenges without ever setting foot in a psychiatrist's office. 

The key to the efficacy of virtual reality as a mental health treatment lies in the fact that patients are fully aware that the situations they find themselves in are not real, that they are actually somewhere quite different and have the power to remove themselves from the virtual world at any time. The brain, despite this knowledge, still learns from the experiences it encountered within the virtual scenario, retraining it to have more realistic expectations of people. Pretty exciting!

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