Augmenting group hoarding disorder treatment with virtual reality discarding: A pilot study in older adults

Raila H, Avanesyan T, Valentine KE, Koo B, Huang C, Tsutsumi Y, Andreeff E, Qiu T, Muñoz Rodríguez PA, Varias A, Filippou-Frye M, van Roessel P, Bullock K, Periyakoil VS, Rodríguez CI. Augmenting group hoarding disorder treatment with virtual reality discarding: A pilot study in older adults. J Psychiatr Res. 2023 Oct;166:25-31. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2023.08.002. Epub 2023 Aug 9. PMID: 37716272.

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Hoarding disorder is common and debilitating, especially in older adults, and novel treatment approaches are needed. Many current treatments emphasize skills related to discarding and decision-making about possessions, which can be practiced in the patient’s home. However in many cases, in-home visits are unfeasible, or real-life discarding is too difficult. Virtual reality (VR) offers the ability to create a virtual “home” including 3D scans of the patient’s actual possessions that can be moved or discarded. VR discarding is an alternative to in-home visits and an approach that provides a stepping stone to real-life discarding. VR has been successfully utilized to treat many disorders but tested minimally in hoarding disorder. In nine older adults with hoarding disorder, we tested an 8-week VR intervention administered to augment a 16-week Buried in Treasures group treatment. Individualized VR rooms were uniquely modeled after each patient’s home. During clinician-administered VR sessions, patients practiced sorting and discarding their virtual possessions. The intervention was feasible to administer. Open-ended participant responses, examined by two independent evaluators, indicated that VR sessions were well-tolerated and that participants found them useful, with nearly all participants noting that VR helped them increase real-life discarding. Self-reported hoarding symptoms decreased from baseline to close, with seven of the nine participants showing reliable improvement in this timeframe and none showing deterioration. Results from this exploratory pilot study suggest that VR is a feasible way to simulate an at-home sorting and discarding experience in a manner that may augment skills acquisition. It remains an open question whether VR discarding practice yields greater improvement than existing treatments. VR for this population merits further clinical investigation.