UCL Institute of Mental Health


UCL translational research project awarded grant on using VR to treat depression

3 October 2019

Faculty of Brain Sciences researchers have gained an NIHR i4i Mental Health Challenge Award for translational research project titled: “Treating depression with self-compassion in virtual reality”

Translational research project using VR to treat depression

With approximately 1.7 million adults in the UK currently experiencing depression, this comes as a huge burden both from an economic and personal perspective. Although there are a number of effective talking therapies available for treating depression, these come at a high cost, with health services driven to find alternative ways of delivering efficient treatment.

Dr John King and Professor Chris Brewin from the Division of Psychology & Language Studies have developed a novel treatment using virtual reality and computer science to meet the medical need of providing an alternative solution to depression.

Professor Brewin comments: “We’re hoping that we will be able to provide something eventually that’s available in patients’ own homes. This could be a huge advantage in just getting them through those ups and downs when they may be feeling very unsupported and alone.”

Their approach draws on two sets of scientific findings involving 1) compassion-focussed work, involving learning to be more kind and self-soothing and 2) virtual reality and avatar re-embodiment.

In a recent interview with the UCL Translational Research Office, Dr King explains:

We came up with a scenario where people who find it very difficult to be kind and compassionate towards themselves, people high in self-criticism, are placed in a virtual environment, given an avatar and are confronted with a very distressed child. We chose a child because we thought that might make it easier for people to be supportive… We record this whole interaction and then, this where re-embodiment comes in, we re-embody the participant as the child… We then play back their earlier intervention so they get the experience of their own words, voice, movements, being compassionate towards “themselves”… We hope that this will create a new experience of self-compassion.”

With the help of the UCL Translational Research Office, Dr King and Professor Brewin have secured an NIHR i4i Mental Health Challenge Award (an award to develop an innovative technological solution which will improve the care pathway and outcomes of patients experiencing mental ill-health), that will allow them to develop the virtual reality technology needed for the project. After the first year, they will be conducting two trials – the first being a feasibility trial, followed by a larger trial to get a sense of effectiveness.

To learn more about the project, the virtual reality technology involved and how they overcame challenges when developing the translational pathway, read the full interview on the UCL Translational Research Office blog: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/translational-research/2019/09/25/virtual-reality-to-increase-self-compassion-depression/