June 9, 2008

Virtual Reality Therapy as a Treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

A new study of has found a surprising use for virtual reality technology — as a therapeutic method for helping people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Virtual reality therapy, when combined with drugs, helps ease the shock of trauma.

PTSD affects about 7.7 million American adults. Soldiers at war and victims of rape or violent assault are at particularly high risk of developing this anxiety disorder.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is traditionally treated with a variety of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications and cognitive behavioral therapy. The therapy typically involves desensitizing the patient to the traumatic incident by recalling the event in increasingly greater detail. According to Dr. Randall Marshall, director of Trauma Studies and Service at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, "We already have very effective cognitive behavioral therapies, but there are a lot of patients who are avoidant about talking about their trauma. Doing so scares them. Many just hope that the nightmares go away."

So, researchers at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta decided to try virtual reality treatment on 24 veterans of the Iraq war. All the participants were men in their 20s or 30s and suffered from a form of PTSD known as "acoustic startle," an exaggerated reaction to loud sounds.

The participants watched computer simulations of Humvees driven singly or in convoys in a desert landscape, or of soldiers patrolling on foot in a town or village. Each clip was designed to mimic the particular events that triggered each soldier's disorder. Using special helmets and headphones, the clips were augmented with sound, smell and even vibration. Within six months of treatment, all participants appeared to benefit from the therapy, with symptoms reduced by an average of 75%.

While 24 patients is a very small sample size, the results of this study are promising. Many patients — particularly younger ones — seem much more amenable to virtual reality than to prolonged discussion of their trauma. Even if VR treatment is only as effective as the traditional ones, it may benefit a wider group of sufferers.
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