Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Virtual Reality Used to Treat Traumatized Vets


Posted by Jacob Goldstein
If a person has post-traumatic stress disorder after a car accident, a therapist might have him sit in a car for a while, then start the engine without going anywhere and, finally, start driving again. But what do you do for a soldier traumatized by a tour of duty in Iraq?

Academic researchers and military docs are developing virtual reality simulators with the hope of treating PTSD by exposing veterans to video game-like recreations of the kind of horrors they experienced in the war.

“You can wear a head-mounted display and drive in a Humvee through the desert, or go on foot patrol through an Iraqi city,” Skip Rizzo, a psychologist at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, told the Health Blog.

The notion that exposing someone to the sort of thing that traumatized them in the first place is counterintuitive — wouldn’t you just be traumatizing them all over again? But it turns out that so-called “exposure therapy” has proved effective for PTSD, Deane Aikins a Yale-based psychologist who’s an expert in PTSD, told us. The big problem is a high dropout rate, because the therapy can be so difficult for patients to endure.

“I think a lot of these people have no idea of what they’re getting into,” Aikins said. “They don’t have an emotional vocabulary.”

The Iraq simulation was designed so that the therapist controls the level of exposure the vet is exposed to. “They can sit by the side of the road with no sound. They can drive like they’re going through Arizona,” Rizzo said. (See, for example, the video above.) “Once they habituate to that, the clinician can add a gunshot in the distance, or an IED goes off, or the guy in the seat next to you gets shot and dies.” (See, for example, the video at right.)

The Iraq project came to the Health Blog’s attention because of a presentation Rizzo gave at the recent Medicine Meets Virtual Reality conference in Long Beach, Calif. (The abstract is posted here.) The project is in its early phases and has seen a high dropout rate, even in preliminary therapy sessions before donning the virtual reality headset.

Still, Rizzo says the early experience is promising for those who finish the program, though some vets aren’t quite clear on the concept. “Some people get in there, they say, ‘I want to fire back,’ ” Rizzo said, noting that soldiers can look around in the simulation, but can’t fire a weapon. “That”s not what the goal of this is. It’s not a cathartic experience of getting revenge and taking out people. It’s about dealing with the trauma you were exposed to.”

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Report offensive comments to healthblog@wsj.com
A chance to relive adolescence-as-therapy!

Comment by dougjmiller@hotmail.com - February 11, 2008 at 11:07 am
no wonder our health care budget is bust…

Comment by skeptic doc - February 11, 2008 at 3:29 pm
That’s the dumbest thing i ever heard
from a combat Vet

Comment by Arthur - February 11, 2008 at 3:50

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