Virtual reality–based psychotherapy in social anxiety disorder: fMRI Study using a self-referential task

Ji Won Hur, Hyemin Shin, Dooyoung Jung, Heon Jeong Lee, Sungkil Lee, Gerard J. Kim, Chung Yean Cho, Seungmoon Choi, Seung Moo Lee, Chul Hyun Cho

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Background: Although it has been well demonstrated that the efficacy of virtual reality therapy for social anxiety disorder is comparable to that of traditional cognitive behavioral therapy, little is known about the effect of virtual reality on pathological self-referential processes in individuals with social anxiety disorder. Objective: We aimed to determine changes in self-referential processing and their neural mechanisms following virtual reality treatment. Methods: We recruited participants with and without a primary diagnosis of social anxiety disorder to undergo clinical assessments (Social Phobia Scale and Post-Event Rumination Scale) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. Participants with social anxiety disorder received virtual reality–based exposure treatment for 6 sessions starting immediately after baseline testing. After the sixth session, participants with social anxiety disorder completed follow-up scans during which they were asked to judge whether a series of words (positive, negative, neutral) was relevant to them. Results: Of 25 individuals with social anxiety disorder who participated in the study, 21 completed the sessions and follow-up; 22 control individuals also participated. There were no significant differences in age (P=.36), sex (P=.71), or handedness (P=.51) between the groups. Whole-brain analysis revealed that participants in the social anxiety disorder group had increased neural responses during positive self-referential processing in the medial temporal and frontal cortexes compared with those in the control group. Participants in the social anxiety disorder group also showed increased left insular activation and decreased right middle frontal gyrus activation during negative self-referential processing. After undergoing virtual reality–based therapy, overall symptoms of the participants with social anxiety disorder were reduced, and these participants exhibited greater activity in a brain regions responsible for self-referential and autobiographical memory processes while viewing positive words during postintervention fMRI scans. Interestingly, the greater the blood oxygen level dependent changes related to positive self-referential processing, the lower the tendency to ruminate on the negative events and the lower the social anxiety following the virtual reality session. Compared with that at baseline, higher activation was also found within broad somatosensory areas in individuals with social anxiety disorder during negative self-referential processing following virtual reality therapy. Conclusions: These fMRI findings might reflect the enhanced physiological and cognitive processing in individuals with social anxiety disorder in response to self-referential information. They also provide neural evidence of the effect of virtual reality exposure therapy on social anxiety and self-derogation.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere25731
JournalJMIR Mental Health
Volume8
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Apr

Keywords

  • Exposure therapy
  • FMRI
  • Social anxiety
  • Social phobia
  • Unctional magnetic resonance imaging
  • VR
  • Virtual reality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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