WASHINGTON — Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could gain some relief from a new virtual-reality program, new research suggests.
The simulated environment, which lets members of the military "relive" their traumatic experiences in a computer-game environment, has shown success in several early studies, researchers said in a talk Thursday (Aug. 7) here at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
The new work builds on traditional exposure therapy, a behavioral technique used to treat PTSD and other anxiety disorders that involves exposing the patient to a fear-inducing object or context in a safe environment. [Top 10 Controversial Psychiatric Disorders]
Approximately 28 percent of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq are diagnosed with clinical distress, according to the U.S. Air Force. A 2010 study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry found that up to 17 percent of U.S. Iraq War veterans may have combat-related PTSD. Exposure-based therapies have been shown to be a promising form of treatment, said Skip Rizzo, a psychologist at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies in Los Angeles, who is leading the work.
"The [virtual reality] format may appeal to a generation of service members who have grown up with the digital world, and feel comfortable with it," Rizzo said. In addition, the virtual-reality program is wireless, making it convenient for veterans to use, he added.
The first versions of the virtual-reality program, called "Virtual Iraq" and "Virtual Afghanistan," were adapted from the first-person video game "Full Spectrum Warrior," which was released for Xbox in 2004. The program featured a wide range of combat situations, and allowed the user to tweak the time of day, the weather conditions and the wound levels of characters in the game. In addition, medical experts could insert "trigger stimuli" to mimic the original traumatic experience.
Now, the researchers have developed a new virtual-reality program, called "Bravemind," which was created using feedback from the first version and includes an expanded set of features.
Tests of this early version have been positive, Rizzo said. A study funded by the Office of Naval Research used a standard exposure-therapy approach, and involved 20 military members (19 men and 1 woman) who had spent an average of eight years in active service. Over the course of the study, 16 participants showed improvement in their PTSD symptoms, while four participants did not.
In a video testimonial, one soldier said that reliving his traumatic experiences in a virtual environment meant he didn't have to think about them when he was at home with his family.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track changes in the brain following the virtual-reality treatment, and found that participants showed less activation in the amygdala, a brain region involved in emotional reactions, and more activation in frontal lobe areas involved in emotional control, Rizzo said.
The researchers also developed a virtual patient project in which clinicians can practice working with a simulated trauma victim before they work with a real person.
Now, the group is looking into using the virtual-reality system as a preventative therapy before soldiers are deployed, by putting them in a provocative environment to prepare them for the stresses they will face.
The group has also launched a military sexual trauma project for service members who have experienced sexual assault. "We're not creating digital rapes," Rizzo said. Rather, the researchers are simulating contexts that recreate the feeling of being trapped or losing control, he said. Interestingly, however, "most of the military sexual trauma occurs stateside," Rizzo said.