Real-life contextualization of exposure therapy using augmented reality: A pilot clinical trial of a novel treatment method

BACKGROUND: Phobias, including arachnophobia, are common and can be treated with exposure therapy, a method that is limited by a lack of feared objects/situations in clinical settings.

METHODS: In a pilot parallel randomized controlled trial (RCT) to test the feasibility and efficacy of augmented reality exposure therapy (ARET), 25 men and women ages 18 to 45 with arachnophobia were designated (ABAB block allocation) to ARET for arachnophobia (n = 13) or waitlist control (n = 12). Data were collected at baseline, 1-week, and 1-month follow-up, and single-session ARET occurred immediately following baseline collection for the intervention group.

RESULTS: All ARET participants were able to touch a live tarantula or the tank containing it after single-session exposure; the control group remained >1 meter away from the tank. Effects persisted or improved at 1-month followup. The Fear of Spiders Questionnaire (FSQ) and Behavioral Approach Test (BAT) showed large, significant beneficial effects of ARET compared with a waitlist control group (BAT: P < .001, partial eta squared = .542; FSQ: P < .001, partial eta squared = .720).

CONCLUSIONS: We found ARET can feasibly be delivered using a wearable device running novel software with rapid responses and sustained effects. Replication and expansion of this pilot RCT will further support use of ARET for this and other specific phobias.

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