Virtual reality food could be used in therapy for eating disorders

[From The Telegraph; the article is available here]

Virtual reality food could be used in therapy for eating disorders

Sufferers of anorexia and bulimia could reduce their fear and anxieties around food by visiting a computer generated restaurant and pretending to dine, a study shows.

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent
Published: 02 Jul 2010

Researchers believe that the technique could reverse their unhealthy relationship with food to the point where they can eventually be reintroduced to the real thing.

The novel approach could be developed after scientists found that food presented in a virtual reality environment causes the same emotional responses as real food.

The sight of food causes major anxiety among sufferers of eating disorders and they develop unhealthy eating habits.

Therapies using real food are not always successful as they can ascorbate the problem and create even more anxiety.

By using virtual reality you can slowly build up their confidence around food before eventually reintroducing them to real thing.

The virtual reality experience was shown to be much stronger than just showing the patients photographs.

The 10 anorexic, 10 bulimic and 10 healthy participants, all women, were initially shown a series of six real, high-calorie foods placed on a table in front of them.

Their heart rate, perspiration and psychological stress were measured during the exposure.

This process was then repeated with a slide show of the same foods, and a virtual reality trip into a computer-generated diner where they could interact with the virtual version of the same six items.

The participants’ level of stress was statistically identical whether in virtual reality or real exposure.

Speaking about the results, Alessandra Gorini from the Istituto Auxologico Italiano, Milan, Italy, said: “Though preliminary, our data shows that virtual stimuli are as effective as real ones, and more effective than static pictures, in generating emotional responses in eating disorder patients”.

The researchers, writing in BioMed Central’s journal Annals of General Psychiatry, compared the responses of people with anorexia and bulimia, and a control group, to the virtual and real-life snacks, suggesting that virtual food can be used for the evaluation and treatment of eating disorders.

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