Greg Fergus, MP for Hull-Aylmer, experiences a demonstration of virtual reality therapy as In Virtuo president StÃ©phane Bouchard conducts the demo at his company offices in Gatineau. ERROL MCGIHON /POSTMEDIA
Patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other anxiety conditions are finding real solutions in a virtual world.
Stéphane Bouchard, Canada Research Chair in clinical cyberpsychology, demonstrated for a few media visitors Wednesday in Gatineau how a virtual tour of an animated space can help people battle their personal demons.
Bouchard, a researcher at the University of Quebec in the Outaouais, is also president of private clinic In Virtuo in Gatineau.
Afraid of spiders?
Virtual reality therapy allows patients to confront spiders, a bit at a time, with visuals so real in a three-dimensional, computer-simulated environment as to evoke the same emotions as the real thing.
“When you are suffering from an anxiety disorder, you are suffering from a few things,” Bouchard says. “People know it’s not logical, but from their gut feeling it’s still frightening.
“It’s the same with virtual reality. It’s not logical, but it elicits the part of the brain that deals with emotion. And we can cure that part of the brain by learning with experiences.”
Virtual reality software produced by the Gatineau company is being shipped around the world, including Belgium, France, Italy and Norway. A hospital in Hawkesbury bought two programs for use with patients suffering gambling addictions and anxiety disorders.
A reporter donned the headgear and found himself in the middle of a party, with good-looking young people and one creepy dude playing the role of sexual predator. He approached, made unwanted advances and was shoved away by a pair of virtual hands wielded by the reporter. During the episode, a clinician can view the same images on a screen.
The company says that up to 12 per cent of Canadians suffer some form of anxiety, from PTSD to obsessive-compulsive disorder to numerous phobias such as the fear of dogs, spiders, public spaces or public speaking.
Prior to virtual treatment, psychotherapists had to take a patient with a fear of heights up to a tall building or into an airplane to confront his or her fear. Or find a crowd for those who fear speaking in public.
“Put on the goggles and you can do all that in the safety of the office,” Bouchard said.
Genevieve Robillard, VP of corporate affairs at In Virtuo, says the clinic is the first to develop a program for sexual assault victims. The company stayed away from creating military scenarios because there are two such virtual reality programs in the U.S.
CED’s Quebec development program has provided $40,000 in funding for the Gatineau company.
Greg Fergus, the MP for Hull-Aylmer, says it was just this type of thing he had in mind when he used to lobby government to invest in research as part of the association of colleges and universities.
“To transfer that knowledge into a form of treatment is key,” Fergus said. “But there is also great economic value to what they are doing. This could save the public health system a lot of money and allow individuals who need treatment to get it faster. It’s all good news.”