Virtual reality tops standard therapy in treatment of PTSD

As increasingly larger numbers of soldiers return from duty in the Middle East, doctors are scrambling to find viable treatments for the host of symptoms associated with prolonged military service. Spending years in the midst of a war, where atrocity and death is a daily occurrence, has undeniably detrimental effects on a person’s psyche, that are only amplified when a soldier is thrust back into civilian life and expected to act “normal.”

For the majority of history (or at least since the stress of war has been a verifiable mental issue) doctors have used drugs and standard therapy measures to treat soldiers, but the success rate of these efforts has always been depressingly low. Fortunately, a new study seems to suggest that virtual reenactments of the horrors of war may hold the secret to alleviating the stress felt by combat veterans.

Researchers at the US Naval Medical Center in San Diego have been running a comparison study between traditional exposure therapy and exposure therapy augmented by virtual simulations. The theory behind both is that by forcing veterans to repeatedly relive whatever event caused their symptoms, their brains can slowly adapt to deal with the trauma and hopefully, eventually allow the soldier to fully cope with the problem.

They key benefit of a virtual simulation is that doctors are able to tailor the experience to each particular soldier’s issue. By recreating the sights, smells, sounds and sensations of a trauma, the doctors believe that soldiers recollections can be more accurately recreated. In turn, this seemingly allows for much more rapid therapeutic results.

To compare the two methods, researchers subjected groups of soldiers to each form of immersion therapy for extended periods of time. After nine weeks of treatment the doctors gauged their patients well-being and while, at that time, it seemed that both forms of therapy were equally useful, testing the subjects three months later had drastically changed the results. The soldiers who were subjected to virtual reality immersion therapy continued to show marked improvement, despite the cessation of treatment, while the gains of those who experienced traditional immersion therapy had largely disappeared.

Why? In war, it has long been thought that soldiers detach themselves from standard emotional response in a subconscious effort to cope with the horrors occurring around them. Greg Reger of the US Department of Defense’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology believes that this virtual reality treatment may more easily allow soldiers to reconnect with “genuine” human emotional responses.

Additionally, Reger believes that tapping these emotions in a virtual reality setting may be more comfortable and intuitive for soldiers of a generation that grew up playing video games, than simply talking things out with a therapist.

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