A new space has been equipped with cutting-edge immersive technology at the Catalan Health Institute’s Intellectual Disability Service at the Parc Hospitalari Martí i Julià in Salt
The Granés Fundació Grant will enable the IDIBGI to carry out research on its effectiveness in the treatment of phobias in people with ASD
Today, the Catalan Health Institute (IAS), Granés Fundació and the Girona Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBGI) have presented the immersive virtual reality project, which will be implemented at the IAS’s Intellectual Disability Service at the Parc Hospitalari Martí i Julià in Salt. The project focuses on the treatment of cognitive and behavioural difficulties in people with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disability and is designed to encompass both treatment and research.
On one hand, Granés Fundació’s partnership with the IAS has enabled the creation of a new immersive virtual reality space, called ERVI Granés Fundació, and acquire the necessary technology for its operation, developed by the start-up Broomx. On the other hand, Granés Fundació and the Girona Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBGI) are promoting the second Granés Fundació Grant with this project, which will support a study of the effectiveness of using the immersive virtual reality environment in the treatment of people with ASD.
Immersive virtual reality creates computer-generated interactive worlds that replace real-world sensory perceptions by other perceptions generated digitally. The person can move within an artificial environment specifically designed for that person, producing situations that may be useful from a therapeutic viewpoint and which are almost impossible to recreate in real life. At the same time, strict control by the ERVI of the stimuli presented to the person enables precise implementation of treatment strategies. In addition, one of its main benefits is that it enables significant reductions in the use of psychotropic drugs.
Granés Fundació Grant: research and treatment of phobias in autistic people
Phobias are common in autistic people. Related with a broad range of triggers, they can have a significant impact on the individual and his or her daily life. One treatment used for phobias in the general population, backed by scientific evidence, is graded exposure: the person imagines the feared situation while he or she is relaxed, and gradually increases the intensity until he or she is exposed to the phobia in real life. Autistic people often experience difficulties with imagination and abstraction and, furthermore, the steps toward exposure in the real world can trigger excessively high levels of anxiety.
With the aim of addressing these limitations, the Granés Fundació Grant will enable research to be performed on the effectiveness of ERVI for 24 weeks in patients with ASD. With this grant, a pre-doc researcher will be recruited, Gemma Alcalde, who will carry out the study within the IDIBGI’s research group on Neurodevelopmental Disorders, led by the IAS’s neuropsychologist, Dr. Susanna Esteba-Castillo.
The study will include 70 participants with ASD and a diagnosis of a specific phobia, of whom 30 will receive sessions in the new space. The new space will allow recreation of the phobic situation by designing personalised, computer-generated scenes. Specifically, behavioural, psychological and psychiatric changes will be analysed, accompanied by an analysis of neuroimaging markers. A therapist will be present during the sessions to handle anxiety.
This will be the second grant awarded by Granés Fundació to a young researcher from the IDIBGI. The first grant was awarded in January 2021 to provide support for the study of the degeneration that takes place in multiple sclerosis. The researcher awarded the grant, Albert Miguela, joined the IDIBGI’s research group on Neurodegeneration and Neuroinflammation, led by Dr. Lluís Ramió i Torrentà, who is head of Neurology at the Hospital Trueta in Girona and the Hospital Santa Caterina at the Parc Hospitalari Martí i Julià in Salt.
Improving the quality of life of disabled people
Most of the studies carried out in the field of immersive virtual reality by pioneering international centres such as the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (Los Angeles) or the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital (Stanford), among others, have shown that it is effective as a therapeutic tool in the treatment of different mental illnesses (stress disorder, anxiety, depression, etc.) and in the cognitive rehabilitation of people who are aging, have acquired brain damage or dementia, among others. Starting from this premise, the service’s professionals have designed a specialised programme using ERVI technology targeting people with ASD and intellectual disability. The goal is to broaden the support strategies for people treated at the IAS’s Intellectual Disability Service within the Girona Health Region. This type of intervention will be rolled out progressively to other patient populations.
Within this framework, the Granés Fundació Immersive Virtual Reality Space is the outcome of short and medium-term commitments undertaken by the IAS and Granés Fundació for people with intellectual disability and/or mental disorders, with the shared goal of improving the quality of life of disabled people. In this respect, Granés Fundació’s aim is to partner with specialised personal social and health care services focused primarily on people with intellectual disability and mental health problems, and their families, with the intention of providing tailored support and services that help improve their personal autonomy and full enjoyment of their rights.