Virtual Reality Treatments—Helpful or Harmful?

By Paul Gaita 02/11/16

Experts weigh in on the future of virtual reality technology.

Virtual Reality Treatments—Helpful or Harmful?
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Virtual reality technology (VR) has been increasingly cited as a viable treatment application for a host of addiction and health issues, from drugs and tobacco to alcohol and eating disorders.

Now, researchers at several universities are looking into ways to use VR to treat disorders ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) issues for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to heroin addiction, pain reduction and even deep-rooted phobias. At the same time, their research is raising questions among the neurological science community as to whether such vivid images might create new and unique trauma among those who seek treatment from the technology.

VR researcher Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Ph.D, is a research scientist and professor with the Institute for Creative Technologies and Department of Psychiatry/School of Gerontology at UC Davis. He has written extensively on the use of VR for PTSD cases. He has applied his research into software that creates realistic Iraq and Afghanistan settings to help returning vets “unlearn the association between the stimuli and its consequences.” Currently, the technology is being used at a number of veteran affairs facilities, and as Rizzo noted, “We try to address the trauma and activate a memory, and it’s hard medicine for a hard problem.” Rizzo is aware that critics of VR’s treatment applications believe that such software could potentially provide more damage than cure. “The point is to learn that the present can’t hurt you,” he said. “For anyone saying that we’re re-traumatizing people, we say this is better than having them see Middle Eastern garb at a Walmart and freaking out.”

Elsewhere, Patrick Bordnick, associate dean of research at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, is forging a connection between VR tech and external stimuli that could reduce physical craving in individuals overcoming heroin addition. By using VR to generate the addictive need through realistic representation of settings like a crack house or shooting gallery, Bordnick believes that addicts could learn to reduce or resist the need. “If you’re exposed to stimuli without giving your body reinforcement in the form of drugs,” he said, “you kill the link, which is called extinction.”

At the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, researchers have found applications for VR in regard to pain management, phobias and even issues of empathy in racially charged conflicts. In the former scenario, Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford lab, evokes an application where a burn victim is shown a tranquil environment—a snowy field—to produce feelings of calm while a painful process like changing bandages takes place. In the latter, a diversity training session allows users to experience prejudice through the eyes of an African-American or other race. “There’s tremendous potential for VR to do good,” said Bailenson.

Where the concern lies in regard to VR treatment is that the technology is still a work in progress. Research has yet to conclusively determine whether exposure to VR is an entirely positive or negative experience. “The truth is, we don’t know what VR does to the brain yet, in part because the best brain studies require MRIs, where the head needs to be still and that’s not happening with VR,” said Bailenson. What is known is that as with any reality-altering experience, long-term exposure to VR can leave the user feeling unwell. Bailenson added, “I can tell you that after working in VR for 20 years, I never spent more than 20 minutes with a headset on at a time.”

Studies are also showing that the reality evoked by a VR scenario can generate very different physiological responses than those produced by an event or experience in the real world. Neurophysicist Mayank Mehta has conducted VR experiments using rats at the University of California-Los Angeles Center for Neurophysics, and found when the animals walked down a VR-created path, fewer neurons were triggered than when the rats performed the same actions in an identical but real hall. “Is this good or bad? It’s not clear yet,” said Mehta. “But these are very surprising things in that we haven’t really seen the brain behave this way. I’d be happier if more studies were done to test the consequences of VR.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.