Researchers at Newcastle University develop VR room to treat autism phobias

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Researchers at a university in the UK have partnered with Third Eye NeuroTech to develop a virtual reality ‘Blue Room’ to treat autism phobias.

The Blue Room allows the Newcastle University researchers to create a personalised 360-degree environment involving the fear that may debilitate the person with autism in real life.

The person can comfortably investigate and navigate through various scenarios within this virtual environment, which requires no goggles. They work with a therapist using iPad controls but remain in full control of the situation.

Funded by the National Institute for Health Research, the research findings have been published in two papers in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders and in Autism in Adulthood.

“For many children and their families, anxiety can rule their lives as they try to avoid the situations which can trigger their child’s fears or phobia,” commented professor Jeremy Parr of the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, who led the studies.

“To be able to offer an NHS treatment that works, and see the children do so well, offers hope to families who have very few treatment options for anxiety available to them.”

Watch the video below to experience the Blue Room from the perspective of a patient being treated:

The randomised controlled trial involving 32 children with autism aged eight to 14 years focused on phobias such as travelling on public transport, school classrooms, dogs and balloons.

Half of the children received treatment in the Blue Room straight away and half acted as a control group, receiving delayed treatment six months later. Accompanied by a psychologist, they underwent four sessions in a week involving a personalised scenario in the Blue Room. Parents were able to watch the treatment via a video link.

Dr Morag Maskey, researcher from the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, said: “People with autism can find imagining a scene difficult which is why the Blue Room is so well-received. We are providing the feared situation in a controlled way through virtual reality and we are sitting alongside them to help them learn how to manage their fears.”

“It is incredibly rewarding to see the effect it can have for some, overcoming a situation which just a week previously would have been so distressing.”

After receiving the treatment and with the support of their parents, the children were then introduced to the scenario in the real world.

Two weeks after treatment, the research showed that four of the first 16 (25%) had responded to treatment and were able to cope with a specific phobia. This effect remained with a total of six showing improvement after six months (38%), however, one reported a worsening of their phobia. Meanwhile, in the control group, five untreated participants had become worse in the six months.

The control group went on to be treated in the Blue Room after this time. Results showed that 40% of children treated showed improvement at two weeks, and 45% at six months. This improvement is comparable with other treatments and the team intend to further examine why some don’t respond.

“It is rare as a business that we get the chance to help young people and their families in such a dramatic and tangible way.”

Eddie Nelson is Director of Third Eye NeuroTech

The Blue Room treatment was also offered to autistic adults in a separate study.

Aged 18 to 57, the adults received four 20-minute sessions in the Blue Room with a personalised computer generated scene. Six months after the sessions, five of the eight participants still had real life day-to-day improvements in relation to their phobia.

The Blue Room is available to UK families on the NHS through the Complex Neurodevelopmental Disorders Service at Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust.

Alongside the NHS Service, the Newcastle University team are continuing further research into the effectiveness and lasting effect of the Blue Room.

Dr Rajesh Nadkarni, executive medical director at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, said: “We are proud to be a partner of the Newcastle Blue Room Treatment which is helping people with autism to manage their anxiety. Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust has a strong track record in providing nationally recognised autism services, and we welcome this new research demonstrating the positive effects of this highly innovative treatment.”

Eddie Nelson is Director of Third Eye NeuroTech, the immersive reality technology company based in County Durham that provides the Blue Room facility. He said: “It is rare as a business that we get the chance to help young people and their families in such a dramatic and tangible way. But what we see with the Blue Room is very anxious young people and adults coming in, yet within four of these specialised sessions they come out having combatted their fears.”