Using Virtual Reality to Identify Actual Disorders

Justina sits on a couch by herself.

“I want to get away,” she says despondently to her psychiatrist.

Her psychiatrist, who is still only in training, is a real person. Justina isn’t. She’s a virtual 16-year-old girl who was created to help residents learn how to talk to and diagnose patients with clinical psychological disorders.

Researchers at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies developed Justina and other artificially intelligent virtual humans for use during clinical training. Albert Rizzo, PhD, a research scientist at the university’s ICT, demonstrated the technology at the American Psychological Association’s 120th Annual Convention held in Orlando, Fla. last week.

The virtual reality patients, who live in computers, are capable of responding to real questions and carrying on a conversation.

Justina is a sexual assault victim who shows symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Her virtual counterpart Justin is a 16-year-old with a conduct disorder. With funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, Rizzo’s lab is also designing a virtual veteran who will display signs of depression and suicidal thoughts.

Psychology and psychiatry students typically train by acting out therapy sessions with their supervisors and other students. Later on in their education, before they complete their degrees, their instructors oversee them as they meet with real patients.

“What’s so useful about this technology is novice clinicians can gain exposure to the presentation of a variety of clinical conditions in a safe and effective environment before interacting with actual patients,” Rizzo said in a release.

“In addition, virtual patients are more versatile and can be available anytime, anywhere. All you need is a computer.”

Physicians have also been experimenting with virtual reality technology for other uses. A recent New York Times article described a video game that Northwestern University developed to help doctors identify patients who are abusing drugs.

Dr. Michael F. Fleming of the Feinberg School of Medicine designed the program based on technology that the F.B.I. uses to train agents in interrogation tactics. The article says that doctors use the program to learn how to look for signs of deceptive behavior like fidgeting, finger-tapping and nervousness.

Rizzo’s lab is working on the next generation of virtual patients. He wants to eventually create a library of diverse characters for psychiatric and psychology students to train with.