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World J Biol Psychiatry. 2014 Aug;15(6):427-42. doi: 10.3109/15622975.2014.892632. Epub 2014 Mar 25.

Virtual reality exposure in anxiety disorders: impact on psychophysiological reactivity.

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Department of Psychiatry, Depression and Anxiety Research Unit, University Hospital Muenster , Muenster , Germany.



Anxiety disorders are among the most frequently encountered psychiatric disorders. Recommended treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and/or medication. In recent years, beneficial effects of virtual reality (VR) exposure therapy have been shown, making this technique a promising addition to CBT. However, the ability of VR to mimic threatening stimuli in a way comparable to in vivo cues has been discussed. In particular, it has been questioned whether VR is capable of provoking psychophysiological symptoms of anxiety. Since psychophysiological arousal is considered a prerequisite for effective exposure treatment, this systematic review aims to evaluate the evidence for the potential of VR exposure to evoke and modulate psychophysiological fear reactions.


PubMed and PsycINFO/Academic Search Premier databases were searched. Thirty-eight studies investigating challenge or habituation effects were included.


VR exposure does provoke psychophysiological arousal, especially in terms of electrodermal activity. Results on psychophysiological habituation in VR are inconclusive. Study design and methodological rigour vary widely.


Despite several limitations, this review provides evidence that VR exposure elicits psychophysiological fear reactions in patients and healthy subjects, rendering VR a promising treatment for anxiety disorders, and a potent research tool for future investigations of psychophysiological processes and their significance during exposure treatment.


CBT; anxiety disorders; exposure therapy; psychophysiology; virtual reality

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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