Genes help explain risk of diabetes

Published 6:37 pm, Saturday, August 12, 2017

Virtual reality – in which people wearing headsets and other equipment experience computer-generated environments as if they were real – is helping obesity researchers better understand people’s responses to their personal genetic information.

“It’s important to put people in a setting that is as close to real life as possible,” says Susan Persky, a scientist with the National Human Genome Research Institute’s social and behavioral research branch. “For example, you really will feel much more like you are in a doctor’s office. You feel present within the system. At the same time, we control everything.”

Persky and her colleagues have conducted several studies using VR to gauge how obese individuals react in clinical settings and at other sites when presented with genetic information about their weight.

In one, she found that telling overweight women about the likely genetic basis for their obesity reduced the women’s feelings that they were blamed for their weight. Other research has found that women who feel stigmatized by their doctors may avoid medical treatment to the detriment of their health.

The scientists recruited 200 women unhappy about their weight and gave them a 10-minute “appointment” with a virtual doctor. The virtual clinician gave each woman one of four presentations. One stressed genetic factors, delivered in a supportive style. A second also emphasized genomics, but it was given in a directive, “doctor-knows-best” manner. A third was supportive but focused only on personal behavior. The fourth stressed behavior but in a directive manner.

Not surprisingly, the volunteers liked the supportive virtual clinician best, especially when the doctor also offered genetic information, saying this approach made them feel less stigmatized and better about themselves. “People feel less blame when doctors talk about genetic factors,”…

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