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Medical Virtual Reality

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The Medical VR Research team is exploring how virtual reality systems can be leveraged to deliver patient therapy, assess mental disorders, and alleviate patient anxiety across a wide range of conditions. We are partnering with teams within Stanford and beyond to further our understanding of VR’s role in the healthcare industry. Please read below for a description of our ongoing medical VR projects.

Using Virtual Reality to Deliver Behavioral Activation Therapy

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. There is strong evidence for the efficacy of a very simple type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for depression called Behavioral Activation (BA). BA encourages patients to change their mood by changing behavior. BA therapy begins with identifying positive activities – such as soaking in a bathtub, going to the mall, or lying on the beach – and scheduling them into the patient’s daily routine. However, many patients are unable to complete BA therapy due to lack of access to trained providers, physical constraints, diminished motivation, or geographical or financial reasons. We are investigating how virtual reality (VR) BA therapy may provide a solution to these barriers.

We are also examining if the benefits of VR-BA may extend to the older adult populations residing in assisted living communities. BA has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms in elderly adults diagnosed with depression and those who have not been formally diagnosed. Many of these individuals face functional limitations that prohibit engagement in activities, which contributes to low mood and/or depression. A BA-inspired VR protocol may have the potential to mitigate the lower mood, life satisfaction, and higher likelihood of depression seen in this population by allowing elderly adults to engage in pleasant activities that they are otherwise unable to participate in.

In collaboration with Dr. Kim Bullock in Stanford’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, we are creating and testing a VR-delivered BA protocol for both the MDD and the elderly adult populations.

Assessing Social Anxiety Disorder with Virtual Reality

In collaboration with Dr. Tali Ball, Director of the STAR lab and Instructor in Stanford’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, we are using VR to study how people with social anxiety learn and make decisions. By taking advantage of the tracking data that VR affords, we can accurately measure subtle changes in body movement, positioning, and gaze patterns to better assess behavior in adults with social anxiety disorder. The goal of this study is to lay the groundwork for future research to improve interventions for anxiety disorders.

Virtual Food Challenge for Patients with Allergy

The Medical VR Research team is working with the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research to design and assess a VR experience to facilitate the food challenge procedure for patients with food allergies. During a food challenge procedure, patients are gradually exposed to increasing doses of their food allergen in order to diagnose or rule out a food allergy. However, the food challenge can cause extreme anxiety, especially in young patients. We are exploring how virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality can be used to reduce anxiety surrounding the food challenge process. Ultimately, we aim to develop an effective tool that can be used by the Allergy Research center with future patients to alleviate anxiety and facilitate the food challenge procedure.