Vall d’Hebron will study how virtual reality can improve the treatment of obesity

The researchers will develop a virtual reality system that will allow obese patients to be aware of their body, overcome stigma, increase their self-esteem and help them cope with the lifestyle changes necessary to start losing weight.


More than 17% of the population of Spain is obese, a condition that predisposes to other physical or mental illnesses such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, heart problems, some types of cancer, sleep disorders, stress or depression. Currently, its treatment focuses on recommendations to promote a change in the behavior of patients, especially based on diet and physical exercise. However, in many cases these tips are not effective to lose weight in the medium or long term, since patients regain it after a while. Now, the Psychiatry, Mental Health and Addictions research group at the Vall d'Hebron Research Institute (VHIR) participates in a new international project, called Socrates, which aims to develop a virtual reality platform to improve the treatment of obesity.

The Socrates virtual reality platform aims to help obese patients with three objectives: to help them become aware of their body reality and that they have a medical condition; overcome the stigma that still exists today regarding obesity and increase your self-esteem; and train them to face lifestyle changes and internalize the actions they must take to start losing weight. “Until now, the standard treatments that have been used in obesity are often based on recommendations that are not always effective. The platform that we will develop goes beyond these tips: we will create a new reality in which the patients will see themselves achieving the challenges that are proposed", explains Dr. Pilar Lusilla, associate of the Psychiatry Service of Hospital Universitario Vall d 'Hebron and Principal Investigator of the Psychiatry, Mental Health and Addiction research group at the VHIR.

The project will be carried out with 66 people with a body mass index greater than 30, 33 of which will be part of the control group and will receive health recommendations using a virtual reality system, while the rest will carry out the sessions of virtual reality of the Socrates project. During these sessions, patients will be able to see themselves as an avatar, with the aim of being aware of their situation, and they will even be able to become their own therapist. Thus, based on a guide developed by the researchers, patients can be the ones to give themselves the advice and recommendations to reflect and achieve the goal of changing their lifestyle and losing weight. “The project is based on the hypothesis that people are more convinced by the reasons they find themselves to change than by those explained by others. The participants, as if they were the therapists, will be able to discover more easily what are their values ​​and preferences that can facilitate the change”, assures Dr. Dimitra Anastasiadou, researcher of the Psychiatry, Mental Health and Addictions research group at the VHIR. The virtual reality platform itself will also allow seeing how the avatar achieves the objectives and loses weight, which will help the person to have a greater motivation to continue.

The study, led by the Catalan company Virtual Bodyworks, in collaboration with the VHIR, IDC Herzliya (Israel) and the University of Maastricht (Netherlands), will be extended for three years with the aim of adapting and testing this platform that allows to empower obese patients to make a change towards better health. The effectiveness of the technology will be validated with the aim that it can be an applicable solution in health systems in the long term.


A clinical trial to find out the potential of virtual reality

In this project, the Vall d'Hebron University Hospital will be in charge of ensuring that, once the technology is adapted to the needs of people with obesity, its effectiveness is tested through a clinical trial.

The study will collect information regarding the participants' motivation to change, but also about their Body Mass Index, their eating habits and physical activity, their perception of their body image, and their degree of satisfaction with the new technology. "In a pilot test carried out with the same technology, people have told us that they feel comfortable with this new system and consider that it can be useful to achieve their objectives", concludes Dr. Josep Antoni Ramos-Quiroga, head of the Psychiatry Service of the Vall d'Hebron University Hospital, principal investigator of the Psychiatry, Mental Health and Addictions group at the VHIR and principal investigator of CIBERSAM.


This project receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under agreement number 951930.

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