Scientists have found that food presented in a virtual reality environment causes the same emotional response as real food, a discovery that could be used for the evaluation and treatment of eating disorders.
Researchers believe that the technique, which allows one to pretend as if eating in a computer generated restaurant, could reduce the fear for food among people suffering from conditions like anorexia and bulimia.
The sight of food causes major anxiety to those patients, but the researchers said the new technique could help reverse their unhealthy relationship with food to the point where they can eventually be reintroduced to the real thing.
For their study, appeared in BioMed Central’s open access journal Annals of General Psychiatry, a team of international researchers compare the effects of the exposure to real food, virtual food and photographs of food in a sample of patients affected by eating disorders.
The virtual reality (VR) experience was shown to be much stronger than just showing the patients photographs.
Lead researcher Alessandra Gorini from the Istituto Auxologico Italiano, Milan, said: “Though preliminary, our data show that virtual stimuli are as effective as real ones, and more effective than static pictures, in generating emotional responses in eating disorder patients“.
During the research, all the participants — 10 anorexic, 10 bulimic and 10 healthy subjects — 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. It was found that the participants’ level of stress was statistically identical whether in virtual reality or real exposure.
Gorini said: “Since real and virtual exposure elicit a comparable level of stress, higher than the one elicited by static pictures, we may eventually see VR being used to screen, evaluate, and treat the emotional reactions provoked by specific stimuli in patients affected by different psychological disorders”.