Combating PTSD through Virtual Reality
For some war veterans dealing with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), going back to war—virtually—can be beneficial. Ongoing studies being conducted across the country, some in conjunction with the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs hospitals, have shown that virtual reality exposure therapy combined with medication can reduce PTSD-related anxiety symptoms.

PTSD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), is "an anxiety disorder that can develop following exposure to traumatic events and includes three types of symptoms: re-experiencing the trauma, such as nightmares or flashbacks; avoidance symptoms such as avoiding reminders of the experience and feeling emotionally numb; and physical hyper arousal, such as being easily startled."

Preliminary data from an NIMH-sponsored study of war veterans showed a reduction in the body's reflex response to loud noises, or "acoustic startle," in veterans who were treated with virtual reality exposure therapy, along with either an antibiotic pill, a placebo or an anti-anxiety medication, such as Xanax.

Companies such as Virtually Better are making the treatment of PTSD, as well as phobias and addiction, their business. Dr. Albert "Skip" Rizzo, a clinical psychologist from the University of Southern California who works with Virtually Better,, created "Virtual Iraq," the clinical tool used in many PTSD studies, by modeling the environment after the video game "Full Spectrum Warrior."

"Virtual Iraq" is specifically meant for veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom, as well as combat personnel who served in Afghanistan. The Office of Naval Research funded the development of the project.

Those who believe in the effectiveness of this fairly new treatment method say that the virtual reality element also helps to ease participants into receiving therapy, especially for the generations of veterans who grew up playing video games. Since for some there may still be a stigma associated with psychotherapy, the VR exposure therapy may draw in PTSD sufferers who might not otherwise seek help.

Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, Ph.D., a psychiatry professor at Emory University School of Medicine, is conducting an ongoing study of the effectiveness of virtual reality therapy on PTSD. The study will be completed in 2011, but so far, it seems that all patients benefit from the therapy.

"We think using virtual reality makes for a more potent and therapeutic exposure session by putting together the memories, sights, smells, feelings and emotions and helping them to confront and cope with that complete memory," said Rothbaum in an NIMH news release.

For more information visit the Virtually Better and National Institute of Mental Health.