VR therapy aids schizophrenia rehabilitation

VR therapy aids schizophrenia rehabilitation

VR Therapy for Schizophrenia Patients: A Breakthrough in Rehabilitation


Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental illness that affects approximately 24 million people worldwide, causing considerable disability in various aspects of life. Personal, social, and occupational functioning can all be impacted by the disease. However, researchers at Semmelweis University in Budapest have made significant strides in the field of rehabilitation for schizophrenia patients by incorporating virtual reality (VR) technology into the therapy process.

The VR-ToMIS Therapy Method

The innovative therapy method, known as VR-ToMIS (Virtual-Reality based Theory of Mind Intervention in Schizophrenia), aims to enhance the mentalisation (Theory of Mind) skills of patients. Dr. Lajos Simon, head of the university’s Reality and Emotion research group, explains, “Theory of Mind is our ability to interpret the feelings, thoughts, and desires of others. Schizophrenic patients tend to decode these messages incorrectly. They often struggle to understand irony and metaphors or misunderstand certain gestures. Our method aims to improve these skills.”

Developed using the software of British startup vTime, VR-ToMIS consists of nine sessions in total. The therapy begins with an introductory session to familiarize patients with the technology and basic concepts, such as the Theory of Mind. This is followed by eight 50-minute-long intervention sessions.

Immersive Simulations

During the first step of the intervention, patients wear VR glasses and are immersed in everyday situations, ranging from a walk on the beach to a blind date or moving in with a roommate. In each simulated scenario, patients interact with an avatar controlled by a therapist. The therapists use linguistic tools like metaphors, irony, humor, and double meaning sentences to uncover mentalisation deficits during the interaction.

The therapy simulation is captured visually in the image below: Therapy simulation

Emotion Recognition Exercise

After the simulation, patients participate in an interactive exercise using a novel VR device called the temporal disc controller. They are shown a 3D face on a screen and are asked to infer the right emotions displayed by moving a mouse around it. This exercise is crucial as it allows patients to display emotions even if they lack the vocabulary to express them due to their illness.

Analytical Discussion and Behavior Modification

Following the simulations, the therapist and patient engage in an analytical discussion to identify any changes in behavior that are necessary to help the patient adapt to the situations practiced during the VR sessions. Patients are given the opportunity to repeat the simulations to observe how changes in behavior can affect their emotions and thoughts about the situation.

Promising Results and Patient Feedback

The testing phase of the VR-ToMIS method concluded in 2022, involving 43 patients. The researchers observed significant improvements in various cognitive and negative symptoms of the participants, including coherent thinking, social cognitive deficit, Theory of Mind, emotional bluntness, decreasing facial expressions, and apathy.

The patient feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Nearly 93.3% of the participants found the method entertaining, and 78% considered it an essential part of their rehabilitation. Furthermore, 77.3% of the patients attempted to apply the learned skills to real-life situations, with 93.3% reporting subjective improvement in their communication abilities, even without extensive practice.

However, it is important to note that some patients found the temporal disc controller task challenging (26.7%) or cumbersome (13.4%). These challenges should be taken into consideration when implementing the therapy.

The Role of VR and Patient Compliance

One significant aspect of the VR-ToMIS method’s success is the outstanding rate of patient compliance. Compliance is often a significant obstacle in the recovery process for schizophrenia patients. However, in this therapy, there were no dropouts, indicating that VR may have a non-specific motivational effect. Dr. Edit Vass, co-developer of the VR therapy, states, “the balance between the empathetic attitude of the therapist and the fact that this novel technology is very exciting for the patients” contributes to the therapy’s success.

Future Plans

Semmelweis University has obtained the Hungarian industrial trademark for VR-ToMIS, with plans to secure an international trademark within two years. The next step involves training professionals in the field to utilize this method, starting initially in Hungary.

The integration of VR technology in schizophrenia rehabilitation has shown promising results, providing patients with an engaging and effective therapy option. The VR-ToMIS method not only improves Theory of Mind skills but also addresses social cognition deficits, emotional bluntness, and other negative symptoms. As this groundbreaking therapy continues to evolve, more individuals suffering from schizophrenia can find hope in a more adaptive and fulfilling future.