Virtual reality (VR) is being used to transform mental health worldwide.
Exposure therapy, during which patients with anxiety confront the sources of their fears, is one of the main forms of treatment aided by the technology.
“Previously, and still today, exposure mainly happens in carefully controlled real-world scenarios,” explained virtual reality expert Sam Martin in an article from Scientific American. “However, VR allows therapists to create that safe, controlled environment inside a VR headset instead. It’s a far safer, quicker and less expensive option.”
A spin-off from Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry, Oxford VR, a pioneer in the VR sector, has been pioneering state-of-the-art immersive VR technology in this field to carry out evidence-based psychological treatments.
Founded in 2017, the startup utilises over 20 years of research by Oxford clinical psychology professor Daniel Freeman into the use of virtual reality to understand and treat psychological disorders. Dr Freeman is also the co-founder and chief clinical officer of Oxford VR.
After an average of just two hours of treatment, Oxford VR has been shown to reduce patients’ fears by 68 percent.
“For somebody with a social anxiety disorder, for example, there is nothing in their anxiety that is real or protective, but these issues prevent them from going to public places, and eventually they feel and become real,” said Oxford VR CEO Barnaby Perks on an episode of the TOA Podcast Studio series. “We’re simply enabling people to see it another way. It’s impossible to do that in the real world, because the very experience is too much.”
The startup’s first clinical trial for the fear of heights demonstrated how automated VR therapy can transform behavioural health care. Oxford VR has also partnered with gameChange, a £4 million project funded by the UK National Institute of Health Research—the first major trial to test VR therapy with serious mental health conditions, such as psychosis. The partnership aims to eventually roll out the technology throughout the National Health Service.
“The landmark clinical validation of NHS gameChange trial is key for VR therapy because it provides real-life evidence for commissioning clinicians that VR therapy is effective and has the potential to be more cost-effective as it reduces demands on clinicians’ time,” Perks told Forbes. “VR therapy is transforming the mental healthcare experience. Great care has been taken to make the treatment program clinically challenging yet also engaging and even fun.”
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The startup raised a record $12.5 million in Series A funding, the highest-ever investment in virtual reality therapy in the UK and Europe. The round was led by Optum Ventures and supported by Luminous Ventures, with participation by Oxford Sciences Innovation, Oxford University Innovation and GT Healthcare Capital Partners.
The funds will be used to expand to the US market and increase its treatment offerings.
“Oxford VR has taken world-class science from Oxford University and applied cutting-edge immersive technology to create a transformational mental health solution which can deliver significant value for overloaded healthcare programs globally,” Izzy Fox, principal at Luminous Ventures, said in a statement. “Immersive therapy is accessible, engaging and effective, and has demonstrated exceptional clinical outcomes and we are thrilled to be partnering with the Oxford VR team.”
Michael Acton Smith