Virtual Reality Shown to Vanquish Symptoms of PTSD
Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technology (ICT) have been getting great results using virtual reality to treat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. This cutting-edge digital technology, which immerses participants in environments that recreate real-world conditions down to the slightest detail, is now being included in therapeutic regimens at more than 60 Veterans Administration hospitals, military bases and university centers across the country.
PTSD treatments are designed to help survivors of trauma restore lost psychological and emotional equilibrium. Within this context, virtual reality simulations function as a type of exposure therapy, re-introducing patients to the sources of their trauma in a setting that is realistic but safe.
Exposure therapy works by teaching PTSD sufferers how to gradually manage their feelings of fear and distress when confronted by experiences that dredge up terrible memories. Naturally, the more realistic the exposure, the more successful this approach is likely to be, and sophisticated virtual reality equipment can re-create the sights, sounds, smells and tactile impressions of any trauma with uncanny accuracy. VR technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the last several years, and at this point virtual reality simulations are demonstrating advanced abilities to help combat-scarred vets who need help reconciling their most traumatic memories.
Using a 2004 Xbox video game called “Full Spectrum Warrior” as a template, ICT researchers developed two virtual reality programs called “Virtual Afghanistan” and “Virtual Iraq” for use in medical facilities that provide mental health treatment to veterans. These programs start from a common frame of reference but are flexible and can be easily customized to meet the needs of individual patients, adding realistic detail and nuance to general recreations of battlefield conditions.
Putting Virtual Reality Therapy to the Test
This type of treatment does not have an extensive track record. However, early test results have been promising.
The Office of Naval Research recently examined the progress of 20 veterans with PTSD who had been undergoing the ICT virtual treatment regimen, using functional MRI brain scanning technology to track before-and-after progress. Improvements were measured in 16 out of 20 patients, each of whom had served on active duty for an average of eight years before their diagnoses.
Test subjects showed reduced activation in the amygdala, a part of the brain that governs emotional response. But they showed increased activity in the frontal lobes, which is the area responsible for helping people maintain their emotional control.
Unrelated to the ICT program, the Department of Defense is funding a University of Central Florida project that is also providing virtual reality treatment for ex-soldiers suffering from PTSD. At UCF’s trauma-management clinic (UCF Restores), patients are put through a three-week, 29-session therapy regimen involving sensory immersion in realistic settings similar to those associated with their past traumas. So far, the UCF therapists are finding a 50 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms for veterans who stick with the program to the end, and with dropout rates hovering around 1 percent, almost everyone they have worked with is benefiting from the virtual treatment regimen.
Normal dropout rates for veterans in non-VR therapy programs are nearly 50 percent, so participants in the UCF experiment must be experiencing noticeable improvements in psychological functioning and learning useful skills for emotional management at a fairly early stage of their rehabilitation. A patient’s belief in the ability of a therapy to make a difference is a vital part of its ultimate success, and the fact that almost everyone who begins virtual reality treatment is staying till the end shows it is engaging the enthusiasm and interest of the veterans participating in this project.
Virtual Reality, Real Emotional Healing
Theoretically, virtual reality as a form of exposure therapy should be appropriate for anyone suffering from any type of emotional trauma. In truth, its potential is only beginning to be explored.
Researchers at the Institute for Creative Technology are working to develop new virtual reality therapy programs that could be used proactively, helping to prepare soldiers for combat beforehand. They have also begun using virtual reality therapy to help victims of military sexual trauma, not by recreating their horrific experiences but by teaching them coping skills they can apply to situations where they feel trapped or unable to control events.
Military-based funding and research has been responsible for a great many important scientific breakthroughs in the past, and that may be the case with virtual reality therapy. A 2010 study estimated that one in six veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was suffering from PTSD, so even if treatments were confined to just this one group, they could still make an enormously positive impact.