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Last Updated: Monday, 10 November, 2003, 01:13 GMT
Virtual world 'tackles paranoia'
Friendly? Or intimidating?
A virtual reality programme could help people overcome their fears of social situations, say researchers.

At the moment, the programme is being used by academics to study feelings of paranoia, but there are hopes that its use might be extended.

Subjects wear 3D glasses and can move around a room inhabited by computer generated characters.

It is under test at the Institute of Psychiatry to provide insights into paranoid feelings during psychosis.

Dr Daniel Freeman, one of the researchers involved in the project, said that the "characters" to be encountered in their simulated "library" were deliberately neutral in expression.

However, different volunteers interpreted their expressions in completely different ways.

Users can "meet" different people
He said: "It's a completely immersive experience - there are three screens there and the people can walk about and this allows them to move around the room.

"If you go up to people they will 'react' to you in the same way - but different people saw this in different ways.

"Some saw it as a really positive experience, saying that the characters 'liked' them or were 'friendly'.

"However, others said they were suspicious of the characters - or that they believed they wanted them to go away."

These were all healthy subjects, and Dr Freeman said that it was natural for some to experience more paranoia than others.

However, in genuine psychosis, powerful paranoia is a key clinical feature, and he hopes the research will allow greater understanding of the condition.

He said: "There is certainly potential in the future for treatment - people could keep going back into the programme and perhaps deal with the characters better each time."

This could work for people with social anxiety disorders, he said.

Their study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, was published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.

Brain scan predicts psychosis
10 Dec 02  |  Health

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