Our mental faculties are the foundation for living meaningful, healthy and happy lives. Whether you are a senior wanting to remain mentally sharp, an athlete dreaming of achieving peak performance or an individual attempting to prevent the onset of age-related cognitive impairments, effectively monitoring and improving your brain function is critical in maintaining good cognitive health.
Advancements in virtual reality technologies offer unique opportunities to create tools to effectively address mental and cognitive health impairments. Recent studies have demonstrated that virtual reality, especially in domains of attention, executive function and memory (both visual and verbal) yields significant improvements to users. This is because virtual reality engages the user’s full attention, removes unnecessary distractions and utilizes a near-realistic training environment. Follow up studies on virtual reality training have demonstrated long-term improvements in cognitive and psychological outcomes.
Uses of virtual reality in mental health
Virtual reality meditation for PTSD
PTSD like other mental health disorders is riddled with lots of stigma. This is compounded by the fact that military culture emphasizes attributes such as self-reliance and toughness creating an additional barrier for veterans to seek the help they need. Virtual reality is being used as a tool for exposure therapy allowing the patient to relive their past trauma in a controlled and safe environment.
Virtual reality to treat phobias
VR is a powerful tool for mental health care because many conditions are inseparable from certain environments. For example, if someone has a fear of heights, that is connected to being at a specific height or if you are socially anxious, it is about being in a social environment. An effective way to treat such conditions is to re-create these environments using virtual reality and have the patient enter these situations and relearn how best to think, feel and behave.
Researchers from Oxford University conducted trials on patients with schizophrenia who struggled with fear and withdrawal in real world scenarios. Using virtual reality, patients explored different sections of a virtual shopping centre alongside a VR coach who provided assessment and guidance using cognitive therapy. As the patients got more comfortable, they would navigate the virtual environment without the aid of the coach.
Virtual reality for stroke rehabilitation
VR is emerging as a key approach to treatment in stroke rehabilitation. By simulating real-life activities, stroke patients are able to work on self-care skills in settings which are impossible to create in a hospital environment. For example, Lenica Research Group has developed RehabVR, a rehabilitation tools which aims to improve visual and auditory attention, working memory, pattern recognition and problem-solving. Patients engage in training tasks in a sensory controlled environment which are both engaging and target their core cognitive impairments.
Virtual reality for athletic cognitive training
The competitive landscape to become a professional athlete continues to increase and athletes are constantly seeking new ways to gain the edge over their competition. Fortunately, sports science research shows what separates elite athletes from their peers is not the physical skills but the visual and mental attributes. VR training in programs like Cognilit allows athletes to training their cognitive skills in an environment similar to what they would experience on the field. In addition, VR forces the athlete to utilize their peripheral awareness, an attribute critical for improved reaction time and decision-making accuracy.
Cognilit is fully immersive cognitive training program developed using 3D Multiple Object Tracking research trains a user’s attention, cognitive processing speed, perception of complex movement and peripheral awareness. These cognitive attributes improve reaction time and decision making accuracy in athletes helping them achieve peak performance.
The future, TODAY
VR offers us a unique platform to take cognitive assessment and training to a new level. We have the ability to create different environments and control the information we present to users and patients allowing us to personalize treatment to met each person’s unique needs. With VR we can truly harness the minds full potential, significantly improve recovery time and significantly cut cost associated with mental health treatment.