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More than 400 patients from across England are participating in the largest ever clinical trial of virtual reality (VR) for a mental health disorder.

The gameChange study will see each patient receive a series of 30-minute therapy sessions in VR, with a virtual coach guiding them in how to overcome their fears in a range of everyday situations.

The virtual coach, which is animated using motion capture and the voice of an actor, provides information on how to overcome anxiety.

Funded by the National Institute for Health Research, the gameChange study will take 18 months to determine whether VR therapy for mental health works.

With this aim in mind, half of the participants will receive VR therapy and half will not. A comparison between the two groups will then be made.

The mental health study is led nationally by Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and is being delivered by partners including Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, which provides mental health and disability services in Northeast England, and Newcastle University.

Dr Rob Dudley, a consultant clinical psychologist and lead for the gameChange VR study at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Many people with psychosis find it hard to cope with busy social situations and may avoid places that they need or want to go to.”

“By using virtual reality technology treatment people can experience feared places like a local shop, cafe or GP surgery in a virtual environment which feels real enough to allow people learn how to manage, and that they are safer than they feel.”

“We very much hope that people will be able to take this learning into the real world letting them do more whilst feeling less anxious or distressed around other people.”

Professor Daniel Freeman, the gameChange lead researcher, added: “The gameChange VR therapy is for people with conditions such as schizophrenia whose fears have caused them to withdraw to such an extent that everyday tasks—such as getting on a bus, doing the shopping, speaking to other people—are a challenge. It aims to help patients re-engage with the world and go into everyday situations feeling more confident, calm and in control.”

Image credit: Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash