View Full Version : Military Turns To Virtual Reality To Treat Post-Traumatic Stress

07-13-05, 10:08 AM
Internet & Technology
Wednesday, July 13, 2005
Military Turns To Virtual Reality To Treat Post-Traumatic Stress


The military hopes 3-D virtual reality war zone simulations will help diagnose and treat post-traumatic stress disorder in troops.

The technology has already helped at least one soldier: Marine Cpl. Nicholas Beberniss, a 22-year-old from Denver who was badly hurt when a mine exploded in Iraq.

Thanks to simulations, Beberniss learned that his psychological reaction to the explosion was normal. "It made me realize it was the accident and nothing else," he said.

An anti-tank mine hit Beberniss' vehicle on a dark desert road last July. It took him five months to walk doctors told him it might never happen and he faces another 18 months of physical therapy.

During his ongoing recovery at Naval Medical Center San Diego, Beberniss heard about the facility's virtual reality therapy research and volunteered for it.

By studying his reaction to computer images of Iraq war zones, he was able to isolate the things that were causing him stress.

His heart rate and respiration quickened dramatically when the screen images went from day to night the time the mine exploded.

"At night everything went off on me," Beberniss said of his virtual reality experience. "It was totally different."

That helped put Beberniss' symptoms, which included a strong aversion to camera flashes, into perspective.

Big Potential

The Office of Naval Research sees broad potential benefits for the many vets in similar situations.

In March it approved $3.8 million for three years of research on virtual reality treatment.

The therapy has high-tech and human elements.

The technology usually relies on headgear with two separate screens, one for each eye. As the patient moves his head, the view changes like a video game.

A therapist at a control panel asks questions and gradually adds new images in response to the patient's physiological reactions.

Mental health professionals hope to avoid a repeat of the psychological struggles that older vets went through.

"We don't want another Vietnam," said Skip Rizzo, a research scientist at the University of Southern California.

Timing is important.

"We want to address the issue now to prevent some of the problems that came after that conflict, where soldiers suffered needlessly," he said.

Rizzo is part of a group of academics, medical professionals, software developers and military personnel working on virtual reality environments for Iraq War vets.

Not yet formally named, the program is known as "Virtual Iraq."

Its images start with a simulated village. Depending on the patient's reactions, the therapist introduces new elements: enemy gunfire, helicopters, bombs and explosions.

Controlled Environment

Patients with post-traumatic stress disorder often avoid situations that remind them of their original frightening experiences.

The idea of virtual reality therapy is to expose them to those experiences in a controlled way so that they can learn to control their responses.

Jim Spira, head of the Virtual Reality Research Project at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, worked with Beberniss.

Spira says Virtual Iraq works particularly well for Marines who went door to door in Fallujah and other dangerous areas.

A future version of the software will be designed for medical support personnel who have seen combat.

Military personnel have an affinity for virtual reality as a treatment method, Spira says.

They're familiar with technology, and they're predisposed to mastering situations step by step. They also tend to be "action oriented" rather than reflective, he said.

And most Iraq vets have grown up with video games, which helps.

"While this therapy is certainly not a game, they're comfortable in this environment partly because of their familiarity with games," Spira said.

The therapy isn't limited to problems arising from combat. It's used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder from other causes, such as car accidents and violent crimes.

It's also used in public speaking training and brain injury rehabilitation and for a variety of phobias and disorders.

Barbara Rothbaum, a psychologist who runs the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Atlanta's Emory University medical school, collaborates on Virtual Iraq.

Easier Than Flying

She says virtual reality is tailor-made for treating common phobias, such as fear of flying.

Traditional treatment can mean physically getting passengers on planes, and even accompanying them on flights not a simple proposition. "It would take hours and hours to get to the airport and fly," Rothbaum said.

She has seen patients improve after eight 45-minute sessions and be able to fly on their own really, not virtually.

That result is the most important measure of success, Rothbaum says. "It doesn't really matter if you're more comfortable in a virtual airplane or a virtual elevator if that's all you achieve," Rothbaum said. "What matters is that it transfers to the real world."