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Virtual reality in battle against disorders
Author: Liezel Engelbrecht
Published: 19/07/2019

The term “virtual reality" (VR) is often associated with the fields of gaming and sport, where it can be applied to immerse yourself into a different reality to fight against villains, or for skills strengthening, such as perfecting a golf swing.

Other applications include virtual tours of museums, for instance a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, or virtual engineering where virtual prototyping is used for planning and construction purposes.

Healthcare is one of the lesser known, but fast growing fields in which this interactive technology is used for both research and treatment applications. The Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) is not lagging behind and the Department of Psychiatry has recently acquired a Virtual Reality Exposure (VRE) device, with high expectations of its applications.

Dr Stéfan du Plessis, clinician and researcher at the Department of Psychiatry who assisted with the application for the funding of the machine, explains that the VRE device is a high-performance instrument that will be used by different researchers in the department as part of studies in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, and neurological disorders, among others.

In 2017, Du Plessis travelled to the University of Würzburg in Germany to customise the machine according the SU's specific needs, and it was delivered earlier this year. “The device consists of a controller PC as well as a physiological monitoring PC attached to a medical trolley. The virtual reality component is a HTC VIVE head mounted display (HMD), and includes physiological monitoring equipment capable of measuring galvanic skin responses, heart rate, breathing rate as well as startle responses," he explains.

According to Du Plessis, these features can be used to gather psychophysiological responses while participants experience virtual reality simulations as part of approved research studies. This includes environments designed to gauge participant stress responses, for example a fear of heights, small spaces and social situations. “The literature shows that by being exposed to stressful situations in a controlled fashion in VR, participants can learn to overcome their fears with the assistance of licensed psychotherapists."

Though the principle may still sound a bit futuristic for some, Du Plessis says the technology has been available since the 1970s, albeit in a more limited form. “With the rise of cell phone technology, crucial components used in HMDs have become a lot cheaper and more advanced. Consequently, the technology has undergone rapid progress since around 2014, when the Oculus Rift (a commercial HMD used commonly by gamers) was developed. After it was bought by Facebook, it spurred particular interest."

According to him this constitutes a dream technology for researchers, as it's relatively inexpensive. “It provides a cost-effective method for doing cutting edge research that can be tailored to our own context, and which could potentially be integrated into existing treatment strategies that are available to everyone."

Du Plessis says the Department of Psychiatry hopes to further its collaboration with international partners, and to integrate the use of this technology with its existing research studies to provide additional biological measurements. “This will help us to better understand and potentially, in future, treat neuropsychiatry disorders that are prevalent in our local context."

Caption: Dr Stefan Du Plessis demonstrating the Virtual Reality Exposure device.

Photo credit: Stefan Els