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The Use of Virtual Reality Technology in the Treatment of Anxiety and Other Psychiatric Disorders

Maples-Keller, Jessica L. PhD; Bunnell, Brian E. PhD; Kim, Sae-Jin BA; Rothbaum, Barbara O. PhD

doi: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000138

Learning objectives After participating in this activity, learners should be better able to:

• Evaluate the literature regarding the effectiveness of incorporating virtual reality (VR) in the treatment of psychiatric disorders

• Assess the use of exposure-based intervention for anxiety disorders

Virtual reality (VR) allows users to experience a sense of presence in a computer-generated, three-dimensional environment. Sensory information is delivered through a head-mounted display and specialized interface devices. These devices track head movements so that the movements and images change in a natural way with head motion, allowing for a sense of immersion. VR, which allows for controlled delivery of sensory stimulation via the therapist, is a convenient and cost-effective treatment. This review focuses on the available literature regarding the effectiveness of incorporating VR within the treatment of various psychiatric disorders, with particular attention to exposure-based intervention for anxiety disorders. A systematic literature search was conducted in order to identify studies implementing VR-based treatment for anxiety or other psychiatric disorders. This article reviews the history of the development of VR-based technology and its use within psychiatric treatment, the empirical evidence for VR-based treatment, and the benefits for using VR for psychiatric research and treatment. It also presents recommendations for how to incorporate VR into psychiatric care and discusses future directions for VR-based treatment and clinical research.

From the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine (Drs. Maples-Keller and Rothbaum, and Mr. Kim); College of Nursing, Medical University of South Carolina (Dr. Bunnell).

Supported by Department of Defense Clinical Trial Grant no. W81XWH-10-1-1045, National Institute of Mental Health grant no. 1R01MH094757-01, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (NARSAD) Distinguished Investigator Grant, and McCormick Foundation (Dr. Rothbaum).

Original manuscript received 31 May 2016; revised manuscript received 21 September 2016, accepted for publication subject to revision 21 October 2016; revised manuscript received 4 November 2016.

Correspondence: Jessica L. Maples-Keller, PhD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, 12 Executive Park Dr. NE, Suite 200, Atlanta, GA 30329. Email:

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© 2017 President and Fellows of Harvard College
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