Treating Anxiety with Virtual Reality Exposure with Larry Hodges, PhD, Barbara Rothbaum, PhD, and Kenneth Graap BS, ME

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Fear of flying have you grounded? Fear of heights have you down? Does the prospect of public speaking leave you speechless? Join Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, Larry Hodges, PhD and Ken Grapp, MEd, to learn how virtual reality is being used to treat anxiety .

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to Atlanta Live Events. Our guests today are Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, Larry Hodges, Ph.D., and Ken Grapp, M.Ed., experts from Virtually Better, Inc. Learn how virtual reality is being used to treat anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.Welcome everyone. Thank you for joining us today.

Dr. Rothbaum: Hello. Welcome to our live chat on virtual reality.

Grapp: I'm Ken Grapp at Virtually Better. Thanks for being here.

Dr. Hodges: I'm Dr. Hodges from Virtually Better.

Moderator: What is virtual reality?

Dr. Hodges: Virtual reality is the use of computer graphics, audio, and sometimes tactile feedback to produce a computer-generated environment that people experience as a real environment. People feel immersed in virtual reality. It is more than just multimedia because you can look around 360 degrees. It soon becomes your reality.

Dr. Rothbaum: Most of the virtual environments are animated and people very often respond, initially, to that animated quality, but within about 20 to 30 seconds, that becomes their reality. Certainly, by their second session in VR, they become accustomed to it, and if it's going to scare them it scares them, and they can interact with it more.

Moderator: Dr. Rothbaum, please give us a bit of your background.

Dr. Rothbaum: I have been treating anxiety disorders for close to two decades now, and I do a lot of what's called "exposure therapy." In exposure therapy, we help people confront what they are scared of in a therapeutic way. In 1993, Dr. Hodges called me, and asked what I thought of using VR for exposure therapy, and I said, You want to do what? But then we designed our first study with the fear of heights, and it worked. People actually exposed themselves to real life height situations after going through VT (virtual therapy), so we have continued ever since applying it to new disorders every year.

Moderator: How did all of you get together?

Dr. Hodges: I have a PhD in computer engineering, and work primarily in computer graphics and VR since 1984. Someone actually came into my office in 1993 and suggested that we use VR to treat public speaking, which I thought was a silly idea at the time, because creating VR people was very difficult with technology at that time. But I happened to mention the idea to my brother in law, who is a psychiatrist, and he called me every weekend for a month trying to convince me that this was a good idea. I just hadn't thought about it deeply enough yet. So what happened was that eventually, he asked me what can you do in VR? I said, well, we can do manmade structures like buildings, so we came up with the idea of doing fear of heights, and after we roughed out the rough idea, and we had an opportunity to get funding, but we needed a principal investigator, not only from Georgia Tech, but also Emory. So I asked my brother in law to call Emory and find out who was the best person in behavior therapy, and they recommended Barbara. So I had my brother in law call Barbara first, because if VR calls, they just think some nut is on the phone. We did the proposal together, it got funded, and we began working together.

I think it's important that when we began, no one knew that if you were afraid of heights in the real world, that you would also be afraid in VR. That was an open question. No one knew whether or not if you got anxious in a VR and habituated and got better, whether or not that would carry over to the real world, so when we began we had no idea if this would be effective at all. But as it turned out, all of these things were true. People got anxious in the Virtual environment, they got better, and it carried over to the real world.