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For Trauma Survivors, Virtual Reality May Be New Way to Cope

By reliving past traumas within the sensory-rich realm of virtual reality, scientists might one day help soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.
/ Source: TechNewsDaily

By reliving past traumas within the sensory-rich realm of virtual reality, scientists might one day help soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

After traumatic events, soldiers can experience what used to be called "shellshock." In post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, one continuously relives the original trauma through flashbacks or nightmares and has problems with anger, sleep and emotional numbness that significantly impair one's life.

One innovative avenue of therapy that researchers have recently developed for PTSD involves virtual reality, which scientists have previously used to help treat a range of anxiety disorders and phobias.

"We know that lengthy military deployments in stressful environments with exposure to multiple, potentially traumatic events can lead to the desire to emotionally 'unplug,'" said researcher Greg Reger, a clinical psychologist at the National Center for Telehealth and Technology in Fort Lewis, Wash. "By using multisensory virtual reality that can be customized in real time, the provider can help activate the memory with relevant sights, sounds, vibrations and even scents that resemble aspects of the event that is haunting them."

The purpose of activating these memories is to reduce the soldiers' anxiety.

"Essentially, by processing the memory repeatedly, it gets easier over time," Reger said.

Prior studies had suggested virtual reality could help with PTSD in Vietnam veterans, Sept. 11 World Trade Center survivors and motor vehicle accident victims, and the researchers wanted to see if such therapy could help soldiers on active duty.

"The sheer number of warriors returning from deployments with PTSD makes it incumbent upon researchers to learn about the effectiveness of their treatments with this population," Reger told TechNewsDaily.

In a clinical trial with 24 active duty U.S. soldiers who had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, clinical psychologists created three-dimensional computer simulated versions of traumatic incidents the soldiers described, such as bombs or gunfire, which the patients viewed with head-mounted displays and interacted with using joysticks or controls mounted on a mock M4 rifle. At times, smells were introduced as well, such as burning rubber, body odor or weapons fire.

By repeatedly revisiting these events with head-mounted displays in 90-minute sessions, the soldiers could safely confront their emotions regarding the event. Fifteen of the 24 patients who underwent an average of about seven sessions reported clinically meaningful, reliable changes in PTSD symptoms.

"It is possible that virtual reality exposure therapy would provide a more appealing treatment option to a young, technologically savvy generation of service members and veterans," Reger said. "In addition, it is possible that a treatment option like virtual reality exposure would be viewed by some service members as less stigmatizing than traditional treatment approaches. If accurate, virtual reality exposure therapy might provide us with the opportunity to treat service members and veterans who may not otherwise seek help."

The scientists are now conducting a randomized clinical trial that compares this virtual reality therapy with existing standards of care for PTSD. In addition to their work with virtual reality, the researchers are developing smartphone apps, online experiences based on the virtual world Second Life and websites that suggest ways soldiers with PTSD can care for themselves.

"This research fits within that overall context of doing everything useful we can think of to leverage technology to get help to those who need it," Reger said.

The scientists detailed their findings in the February issue of the Journal of Traumatic Stress.