Harnessing Virtual Reality to Improve Behavioral and Physical Health Care

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Many of us think of Virtual Reality (VR) as a high-tech tool for immersive entertainment experiences or realistic video games. But VR—an interactive computer-generated experience taking place within a simulated environment—also holds great promise for behavioral and physical health care.

The purpose of VR is to allow a person to experience and manipulate the environment as if it were the real world. At the BrainFutures conference, Dr. Walter Greenleaf, a research neuroscientist and medical product developer working at Stanford University, notes that although social adoption of VR will be driven by the entertainment and gaming industries, the deepest and most significant market for VR will be in health care and wellness.

Neuroscientists have found that to regulate and control the body in the world effectively the brain creates an embodied simulation of the body in the world used to represent and predict actions, concepts and emotions. VR works in a similar way: The VR experience tries to predict the sensory consequences of an individual’s movements, providing the same scene that person will see and experience in the real world.

VR has been clinically proven to improve patients’ behaviors and attitudes toward treatment of a wide range of conditions. The use of VR in health care has been researched for more than 30 years, but only recently have new technologies made VR accessible and affordable for widespread adoption in the field. VR now holds promise for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, traumatic brain injury, addictions, autism, cognitive decline and other difficult problems in behavioral and physical medicine.

Dr. Greenleaf highlighted several opportunities for using VR in behavioral medicine, including:

  • By digitizing and standardizing environments for cognitive assessments, clinicians can test their patients’ cognitive skills in a more objective and reproducible way.
  • Exposure-based treatments for phobias and PTSD can now be conducted safely in office environments.
  • For those with addiction issues, refusal skills training can be effectively conducted using VR.