News round-up (31 May 2024)

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30th May 2024 about a 6 minute read

Innovations reported this week include a virtual reality application that can reduce people’s fear of public speaking and an app to help people with multiple comorbidities manage their pain. An intriguing new piece of research shows that placebos are effective in treating people with a range of mental health disorders, including depression and schizophrenia. In the US, the very first prescriptions for a drug treating postpartum depression have been issued.

Main stories from the week

Virtual reality enables doctors to experience what it’s like to be a patient

A new app called OtherReality uses virtual reality to help doctors and other medical professionals to see things from the patient’s point of view.

Group activities socially prescribed to children

Children are to be prescribed activities such as gardening and fishing as part of a research project aiming to tackle loneliness.

Mentally unwell children subject to a ‘form of torture’ by being put on wrong wards

Children with mental illness are being forced to stay on wards that are not fit to care for them, the Health Services Safety Investigation Body (HSSIB), a health regulator, has warned in a report.

Pre-pandemic brain scans predicted mental health outcomes during pandemic

An examination of brain scans of adolescents taken before the pandemic was able to predict mental health outcomes during the pandemic, a study has found.


And other stories from the week…

New application uses virtual reality to support people with a fear of public speaking

A new study has used PublicVR, a virtual reality (VR) application, to help people who have speech anxiety and a fear of public speaking.

Researchers at Brunel University London and the University of Greenwich uploaded PublicVR to VR headsets to enable participants to deliver presentations in VR boardrooms and auditoriums in front of an audience of 3D avatars. Messages would appear throughout the presentations praising participants and providing them with instant feedback about their pace and gaze.

The aim of the study is to explore how Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET), an emerging technology aimed at improving anxiety disorder symptoms, can be used to support adults with self-reported public speaking anxiety.

The participants, all aged between 19 and 25, said they felt that the VR experience created a real sense of being in a real public speaking scenario and that the timer and messages helped them to focus on skills that they hadn’t considered before, boosting their confidence and overcoming some of their anxiety.

Mental health main reason for children in Wales missing school

Panic attacks, anxiety and problems with mental health are among the reasons given by children in Wales for missing school.

Data shows that 40% of schoolchildren in Wales were persistently absent in the last school year, 2022-23. This compares with 17% in 2018-19.

One school head said that teachers were having to resort to driving to pupils’ homes to try and get them back to their classrooms.

Lynne Neagle, the education secretary Lynne Neagle said that the Welsh government was tackling the problem through better training: “Every child aged year six and above is entitled to access school counselling in Wales. We’re funding training for the teachers and school staff so that they can better support pupils, and we’ve got our CAMHS in-reach.”

Patients in the US start receiving first medication aimed at postpartum depression

Women in the United States have begun receiving prescriptions for zuranolone, the first drug licensed to treat postpartum depression.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug in August, but it has taken several months for the supply to become available.

Before zuranolone, women in the US with postpartum depression were either prescribed standard antidepressant drugs, which take weeks to start working, or administered an antidepressant treatment delivered by intravenous injection.

In clinical trials, zuranolone was shown to improve symptoms of severe postpartum depression — such as anxiety, difficulty sleeping, loss of pleasure, low energy, guilt or social withdrawal — as early as three days in.

Pain management app will be offered to patients with multiple conditions

An app that enables people with multiple health conditions to manage their pain is to be offered to hundreds of thousands of patients.

The 18-month project, run by Holly Health in collaboration with Loughborough University and the Modality Partnership (a group of GP practices), is receiving £447k in funding from Innovate UK to develop a machine learning system.

The app, called Prevent, will enable people to manage multiple chronic conditions. The project will focus on patients aged 40-65 who are at risk, and those who are already living with multimorbidity.

Part of the project will involve further developing the Holly Health Personalised Digital Coaching Service, which, the company says, has resulted in a 22% increase in personal wellbeing and a 33% reduction in patients needing GP support. The development will include combining machine learning approaches with emerging techniques in adaptive behaviour change support to make sure patients receive the right type of coaching interventions at the right time.

Army may let recruits with autism or mental health troubles join up

Recruits with autism or a history of depression could be admitted into the armed forces for the first time.

Under plans being drawn up by Capita, recruitment would be extended to groups who are currently not allowed to join, including those with autism or ADHD. The aim is to tackle the recruitment crisis currently facing the army. According to the Telegraph, more than 500 candidates are turned down from the army each year because they have a neurodivergent condition.

Last year nearly 4,000 candidates last year were rejected because they had psychiatric conditions which made them ineligible.

The paper reported that senior military figures are keen to recruit candidates who are neurodivergent as they are often “rich” in digital skills.

Placebos can ease certain mental disorders, study finds

People with mental health disorders found their symptoms substantially improved when they were given placebo treatment, a new review of research has found.

The meta-analysis of 90 randomised controlled trials, totalling 9,985 people, found that symptoms of nine mental health disorders improved when participants were given a placebo rather than the active drug. The nine disorders that improved were: major depressive disorder, mania, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and social phobia.

Dr Tom Bschor, first author of the study and professor of psychiatry at the University Hospital Dresden in Germany, said: “The positive effect across all diagnoses shows that it can be medically and ethically justified for patients to participate in clinical trials with placebo arms in the future. Clinicians can encourage their patients to participate in such trials, considering the risk of being assigned to placebo.”