Virtual reality and persecutory delusions: safety and feasibility.
Fornells-Ambrojo M., Barker C., Swapp D., Slater M., Antley A., Freeman D.
OBJECTIVE: Virtual reality (VR) has begun to be used to research the key psychotic symptom of paranoia. The initial studies have been with non-clinical individuals and individuals at high risk of psychosis. The next step is to develop the technology for the understanding and treatment of clinical delusions. Therefore the present study investigated the acceptability and safety of using VR with individuals with current persecutory delusions. Further, it set out to determine whether patients feel immersed in a VR social environment and, consequently, experience paranoid thoughts. METHOD: Twenty individuals with persecutory delusions and twenty non-clinical individuals spent 4 min in a VR underground train containing neutral characters. Levels of simulator sickness, distress, sense of presence, and persecutory ideation about the computer characters were measured. A one-week follow-up was conducted to check longer-term side effects. RESULTS: The VR experience did not raise levels of anxiety or symptoms of simulator sickness. No side effects were reported at the follow-up. There was a considerable degree of presence in the VR scenario for all participants. A high proportion of the persecutory delusions group (65%) had persecutory thinking about the computer characters, although this rate was not significantly higher than the non-clinical group. CONCLUSIONS: The study indicates that brief experiences in VR are safe and acceptable to people with psychosis. Further, patients with paranoia can feel engaged in VR scenes and experience persecutory thoughts. Exposure to social situations using VR has the potential to be incorporated into cognitive behavioural interventions for paranoia.