Pioneering clinical trial to test virtual reality psychotherapy for young people with depression


The study will analyze the usefulness of personal construct therapy in people aged 18 to 29 with mild to moderate symptoms of depression.

Experts Guillem Feixas (UB) and Adrián Montesano (UOC).

Experts Guillem Feixas (UB) and Adrián Montesano (UOC).

The EYME virtual reality application helps psychotherapists explore and analyze patients' interpersonal perceptions.

The EYME virtual reality application helps psychotherapists explore and analyze patients’ interpersonal perceptions.

Some studies reveal a disturbing number of young people showing symptoms of depression. For this reason, a clinical trial coordinated by Guillem Feixas, professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Institute of Neuroscience (UBNeuro) at UB, and Adrián Montesano, lecturer and researcher at the Faculty of Psychology and Science of Education of the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), tries to find new tools to improve the psychological care of this population.

The study, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, will analyze the usefulness of personal construction therapy in people aged 18 to 29 with mild to moderate symptoms of depression. It will also explore whether this therapy is more effective in combination with EYME, an innovative virtual reality application.

Speaker Adrian Montesano explains that depression affects “between 60% and 80% of young people”, a figure that has probably reached this point because of the pandemic. “In most cases – he adds – the symptoms are mild, but we know that the earlier these problems are taken care of, the less likely they are to persist in the long term or to worsen”.

“Personal construct therapy is particularly focused on how people construct their reality and the meaning they give to the people and things that are happening around them,” Montesano explains. Over the past decades, its results have been positive, but this is the first trial in which it is applied specifically to young people with depressive symptoms. This will make it possible to compare the effectiveness of this therapy with that of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is taken as a reference and which is based in particular on observable behaviors.

EYME, a platform created at UB

Virtual reality has already been tested in exposure therapies to treat certain phobias, but this is the first time it will be applied in the treatment of depression and as psychotherapy in general. The virtual reality application EYME, developed by the UB, is a pioneer: it consists of an immersive digital platform that helps psychotherapists to explore and analyze the interpersonal perceptions of patients (it also applies to coaching and organizational consulting ). By means of a pre-talk, the system transforms meanings and people that are important to the patient’s identity into spheres and words that are placed in three-dimensional space.

This makes it possible to accompany the person on a walk in their mind and in their universe of meaning and personal values, which promotes therapeutic conversation. “The algorithms it uses are based on work accumulated over two decades, and we believe it can have added value with the young population: it can improve their adherence to treatment and the attractiveness of psychotherapy,” explains Montesano.

Patient involvement is critical

To date, it has been observed that the effectiveness of the different types of psychotherapy is —on the whole— the same and that approximately 35% of patients drop out of the treatment before it can be considered complete. This is a problem, given that one of the key factors in psychological therapy is patient involvement. If the clinical trial currently being studied were to be successful, it would allow treatment to be personalized according to personal preferences, which would reduce the dropout rate.

Professor Guillem Feixas notes: “This trial is important to study whether we can improve the effectiveness of psychotherapy using humanized technology (it does not replace the therapist) and humanizing technology (self-knowledge is reinforced without label the person consulting) . We are currently studying it in depression, but we have observed that it works in many other disorders (eating disorders, personality disorders and others) and in life transitions (loss, grief, migration, trauma, etc. .), in which the feeling of identity has a strong implication. We see significant potential for the future.”

Although the recruitment of volunteers remains open until the beginning of 2023, the trial, which will concern a total of 225 patients, has already started: the first consultations are taking place in the universities concerned, as well as in health centers and hospitals associated with the project. People who wish to participate must be between the ages of 18 and 29 and have mild to moderate symptoms of depression. As part of the study, they will be offered free, science-based therapy sessions conducted by professional experts. Volunteers can register directly from the project website, which is in line with Sustainable Development Goal 3.

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