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A project aimed at helping people overcome fear of needles will get underway at Oxford University thanks to support from the Beryl Alexander Charity.

Testing out Oxford's GameChange virtual reality therapy, which is designed to treat agoraphobia in patients with psychosis. © University of Oxford
Testing out Oxford's GameChange virtual reality therapy, designed to treat agoraphobia in patients with psychosis

Needle fear is a very common problem: a large-scale study conducted in 2021 found that as many as one in four people may suffer from it, with the issue typically beginning in childhood. This fear can have a significant impact on people’s lives, preventing them from receiving injections or vaccines, or undergoing blood tests.

Although current psychological therapies have proven to be effective, a shortage of therapists means that very few people are able to access professional help. To address this gap, clinical psychologist Professor Daniel Freeman, in the Department of Psychiatry, will lead an interdisciplinary team in developing, testing and trialling a new immersive virtual reality-enabled treatment programme for needle fear. Crucially, the user will be guided through the therapy by a fully automated virtual coach, meaning that the treatment’s delivery can be supported by a range of professionals such as nurses or school pastoral staff, dramatically increasing scalability.

The project will focus on young people between the ages of 11 and 18 years old and will involve those with lived experience of needle fear, as well as medical clinicians, in the design stages. Once built, the treatment is expected to take around three hours to complete and will focus on helping users overcome their fears gradually.

Professor Freeman is a pioneer of virtual reality (VR) psychological therapy, having previously used it to successfully treat several conditions including fear of heights. In a 2018 clinical trial, his ‘I can do heights’ programme was shown to produce better results than the best psychological intervention delivered face-to-face with a therapist, with fear declining by an average of 70 per cent. One participant said: "What I’m noticing is that in day-to-day life I’m much less averse to edges, steps and heights…I feel as if I’m making enormous progress."

VR is an immensely powerful way to address psychological issues, allowing users to try things that they would be reluctant to attempt in real life. VR treatment can also be made compelling and entertaining, while the headsets themselves are increasingly affordable and easy to use. The technology is also particularly popular with young people.

Professor Freeman said:

"We are very excited to conduct this programme of research. It is obviously crucial to take the fear out of one of the most commonly used medical devices. An engaging, effective and automated virtual reality therapy for needle fears could benefit so many people. We will work with young people, computer scientists and psychologists to produce an outstanding VR experience. The new therapy could be used widely in hospitals, vaccination centres and blood donation centres. The funding from the Beryl Alexander Charity is going to set this in motion and we are tremendously grateful for their support."

The project is expected to begin in January 2022 and will run for two years. It has been made possible thanks to a grant from the Beryl Alexander Charity, which was established in 2018 to support research aimed at assisting people suffering from mental health problems.