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University of Basel

10 February 2021

Virtual reality helping to treat fear of heights

A mountain scenario from the app
In the virtual reality app, users gradually rise to greater heights and can indicate the degree of their fear at each level. (Image: Bentz et al., NPJ Digital Medicine 2021)

Researchers from the University of Basel have developed a virtual reality app for smartphones to reduce fear of heights. Now, they have conducted a clinical trial to study its efficacy. Trial participants who spent a total of four hours training with the app at home showed an improvement in their ability to handle real height situations.

View from a great height from the VR app
Advanced level of the virtual reality app. (Image: Bentz et al., NPJ Digital Medicine 2021)

The research team studied the efficacy of this approach in a randomized, controlled trial and published the results in the journal NPJ Digital Medicine. Fifty trial participants with a fear of heights either completed a four-hour height training program (one 60-minute session and six 30-minute sessions over the course of two weeks) using virtual reality, or were assigned to the control group, which did not complete these training sessions.

Before and after the training phase – or the same period of time without training – the trial participants ascended the Uetliberg lookout tower near Zurich as far as their fear of heights allowed them. The researchers recorded the height level reached by the participants along with their subjective fear level at each level of the tower. At the end of the trial, the researchers evaluated the results from 22 subjects who completed the Easyheights training and 25 from the control group.

The group that completed the training with the app exhibited less fear on the tower and was able to ascend further towards the top than they could before completing the training. The control group exhibited no positive changes. The efficacy of the Easyheights training proved comparable to that of conventional exposure therapy.

Therapy in your own living room

Researchers have already been studying the use of virtual reality for treating fear of heights for more than two decades. “What is new, however, is that smartphones can be used to produce the virtual scenarios that previously required a technically complicated type of treatment, and this makes it much more accessible,” explains Dr. Dorothée Bentz, lead author of the study.

The results from the study suggest that the repeated use of a smartphone-based virtual reality exposure therapy can greatly improve the behavior and subjective state of well-being in height situations. People who suffer from a mild fear of heights will soon be able to download the free app from major app stores and complete training sessions on their own. However, the researchers recommend that people who suffer from a serious fear of heights only use the app with the supervision of a professional.

The current study is one of several projects in progress at the Transfaculty Research Platform for Molecular and Cognitive Neurosciences, led by Professor Andreas Papassotiropoulos and Professor Dominique de Quervain. Their goal is to improve the treatment of mental disorders through the use of new technologies and to make these treatments widely available.

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