Augmented reality is being used in novel ways in the field of mental health
Augmented reality (AR) is one of the most intriguing technological developments of recent years with its ability to overlay digital displays on top of real world environments with the assistance of devices such as Google Lens and the Microsoft Hololens. AR has been used for everything from mobile games to construction training and supply chain management. However, one of the most fascinating uses could be the adoption of AR in mental healthcare, where it is being used to treat dementia, autism, ADHD, addiction, and more.
Reminiscence Therapy for Dementia
A 2003 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) “reviewed the developmental history and theoretical basis of reminiscence and evaluated the empirical evidence concerning the use and effectiveness of reminiscence in the elderly.” It concluded that seniors with dementia can be reminded of their sense of self by activating remote memory (long-term memories from years past).
Acceptance of reminiscence therapy has led to the creation of “Dementia Villages” around the world, including Glenner Town Square in San Diego, Calif. — the first in the United States. Glenner used set designers and production staff from the San Diego Opera Scenic Studio to recreate a small town with stores, restaurants, and even a Post Office that the patients can explore safely. The town has local touches from San Diego’s history that would be familiar to older residents, ideally triggering remote memories.
Virtue Health’s LookBack offers reminiscence therapy with AR headsets. A caregiver using the LookBack Care Platform on a mobile device is able to virtually transport the dementia patient wearing the headset to any location in the world, including childhood homes, favorite vacations, and more. The treatment offered by LookBack can be fully customized for each patient and has shown to promote cognitive stimulation and increase communication while decreasing anxiety in most patients. Such AR headsets could be used in care facilities and at private homes, potentially allowing dementia patients to stay in their homes rather than seeking care in an assisted living facility.
Augmented Reality Exposure Therapy (ARET) for Phobias
Phobias ranging from fear of public speaking to fear of spiders to fear of clowns are common, occasionally debilitating, aspects of the lives of many. Exposure therapy has proven to be effective treatment for people suffering from hemophobia, arachnophobia, and coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) and could be equally effective for a variety of other phobias.
The ability of augmented reality to overlay images on natural surroundings makes it an effective way to treat phobias. ARET allows for safe exposure therapy without having to go to extreme measures such as releasing arachnids indoors for someone with a fear of spiders or taking someone with acrophobia to the top of a skyscraper. One research lab which has developed ARET programs for people with arachnophobia is HIT Lab NZ, whose AR treatment can be seen in the video.
Behavioral Therapy for Autism and ADHD
Developing appropriate social skills can be a massive challenge for people with autism. Using AR in behavioral therapy is a way of allowing people of all ages who have autism to develop skills in life-like settings. Children can use the overlays provided by AR headsets to promote imaginative play, something vital to social interaction and development. Similarly, teens and adults can practice everyday interactions that are vital in job interviews and meeting new people.
In 2018, PTC, a mixed-reality tech company, partnered with Boston Children’s Hospital to develop AR therapy for patients with autism and other neurological disorders. The collaboration hopes to produce an app for children with autism at the developmental age of three to five years which will aid in communication. Many children with autism are visual learners and helping them see visual representations of instructions and daily schedules could ease anxiety and decrease disruptive behaviors.
Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab is developing a host of AR and VR programs, including one, the Autism Glass Project, which uses machine learning to analyze facial cues and provide real-time social cues to children with autism.
Similarly, children with ADHD often need immediate feedback and stimulation which can be provided by AR. This can be done by overlaying prompts on reading assignments to keep students on track and prevent the eyes from wandering and making the act of reading more difficult. As a disorder of the executive function of the brain, ADHD therapy often involves puzzles and problem-solving activities that promote selective attention and mental processing.
Project: EVO from Akili Labs offers “digital medicine” in the form of therapy disguised as video games that assists children with ADHD. Not only is the therapy effective, it’s also appealing to youngsters who might object to other forms of treatment.
Recovering drug and alcohol addicts can use AR to come face to face with their struggle without risking the consequences of a relapse. At a therapist’s office, the patient can be presented with virtual drugs or alcohol that will trigger cravings and help the person in recovery learn how to deal with them. Patients can also enter virtual worlds where they encounter friends and situations that could potentially trigger a relapse to better prepare them for real-life situations.
Sober.ly is a free AR app that lets users create an avatar and enter virtual environments where they can have group therapy meetings or one-on-one support sessions. The company’s founder, Nathan Perkins, feels that the app could make it easier for addicts to seek help by removing the embarrassment or stigma of admitting their problem in person.
Treating Phantom Limb Pain
Many people who lose a limb or other body part suffer from phantom limb pain (PLP) after amputation. While the cause is still debated, a common theory is that nerves in the brain and spinal cord realize there is no longer input coming from the missing limb and they send out pain signals.
The Biomechatronics and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden conducted a study on 14 patients suffering from PLP that involved 12 AR sessions over a six-month period. Their “Phantom Motor Execution” treatment used augmented reality and electrodes attached to the body nearest the amputation to allow patients to mimic movements seen on screens with their phantom limb.
Patients whose arms had been amputated could visualize their arm moving, their hand being opened and closed, and even controlling video games with their missing arm. After the therapy, half of the patients were able to reduce their pain medication significantly, and PLP pain was reduced by nearly 50 percent.
Augmenting Future Care
Still a relatively young technology, AR has yet to prove its total value as it is adopted in more and more sectors. However, the promising strides augmented reality has already made in the field of mental health show that there are several interesting applications for the tech. Together, AR and mental healthcare professionals can provide a brighter future for people with a variety of disorders.