The use of virtual reality (VR) therapy helped reduce the fear of heights in a group of people who suffered from long-term acrophobia. The research team expressed hope the treatment will be used to treat other mental health problems in the future.

"Automated psychological therapy using immersive virtual reality for treatment of fear of heights: a single-blind, parallel-group, randomised controlled trial" was published in the Lancet Psychiatry on July 11.

Acrophobia, or the fear of heights, is experienced by nearly 1 in 15 people at some point in their lives.

"It is just the most common type of phobia and one we know a lot of people do not get treatment for despite it impinging on many people’s lives quite a lot," said Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, England.

Responses to heights can vary based on the individual, but typically include an increased heart rate, sweating, and shortness of breath — some may even experience symptoms of vertigo and a loss in balance, where they may lower themselves to the ground or find something to hold onto for support.

For the new study, the research team recruited 100 volunteers, all of whom had reported having a fear of heights for an average of 30 years. Only half of them were given access to VR therapy in the form of six sessions spread over a fortnight.

The therapy involved wearing a headset and performing activities within the virtual simulation such as rescuing a cat stuck on a tree or walking across a rope bridge. 

When the participants were assessed later with a questionnaire, those from the VR group reported an overall 68 percent reduction in their fear while those who received no therapy did not see any significant change.

According to Freeman, three-quarters of people in the VR group found their fear had at least halved. The change was apparent when these participants were exposed to heights in real life.

"Afterwards, people even found they could go to places that they wouldn’t have imagined possible, such as walk up a steep mountain, go with their children on a rope bridge, or simply use an escalator in a shopping center without fear," he said.

However, the study did not compare the effectiveness of VR to traditional therapy, nor did it examine if the beneficial effects were sustained for a long period of time. Freeman and his team are also testing VR therapy for schizophrenia and depression, conditions that also require guidance from skilled therapists.

Lack of access can be a problem for many people, whether it is the shortage of mental health professionals in rural areas or the high prices of individual sessions.

"There are too few skilled therapists delivering the best treatments to meet the high demand, meaning that millions of people are left waiting for the right help," Freeman said, noting that more research can help pave the way for offering VR treatments as an effective alternative.