Virtual Reality PTSD therapy awarded research funding by U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research

Honolulu 28 February 2005Pacific Telehealth & Technology Hui announced that an innovative behavioural health initiative that uses virtual reality (VR) therapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in warfighters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has been awarded $1,3 million in research funding as part of the Warfighter Mental Health Programme at the Medical and Biological Science and Technology Division of the Office of Naval Research.

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The project, "Efficacy of Virtual Reality in Treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in U.S. Warfighters Returning from Iraq and Afghanistan Combat Theaters", is a collaborative research project with the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System and Tripler Army Medical Center. The research initiative is the first to explore the use of VR to treat PTSD in returning warfighters.

PTSD is one of the most disabling psychological disorders affecting United States soldiers and veterans who have been exposed to combat. Three decades after the end of the Vietnam War, an estimated 839.000 veterans still suffer from chronic, combat-related PTSD. Because of the enormous burden PTSD places on the military and veterans, the U.S. Department of Defense and VA have placed a significant emphasis on early diagnosis and treatment of PTSD.

Sarah D. Miyahira, Ph.D., VA principal investigator and Hui director of intramural research, explained: "To date, most of the research on PTSD has been conducted on veterans. But the sooner we are able to diagnose soldiers with combat-related PTSD and treat them, the greater the prognosis for success."

Psychologists utilize cognitive behavioural therapy to treat behavioural health conditions like PTSD. Patients are exposed to real-life images of feared events in order to facilitate the cognitive and emotional healing needed for recovery. VR exposure therapy is used to augment traditional treatment approaches. By giving therapists a tool which allows them to guide a patient through a highly immersive virtual environment that triggers the intense sights, sounds and other sensory experiences they may have undergone in the original conflict, the patient can recall and deal with their memories of the traumatic events more effectively.

Behavioural health psychologists at Tripler Army Medical Center and the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System are working with Hunter Hoffman, Ph.D., of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle, to develop battlefield simulations for use in PTSD exposure therapy. Dr. Hoffman's work with virtual environments such as the World Trade Center attack and terrorist bus bombings was recently featured in Scientific American.

Raymond Folen, Ph.D., chief of Behavioural Health at Tripler Army Medical Center Department of Psychology and co-investigator of the research study, anticipates the VR environment will be ready for implementation in the research protocol for soldiers returning to Hawaii within six months.

The Pacific Telehealth & Technology Hui was formed in 1999 under joint agreement with the DoD Pacific Regional Medical Command at Tripler Army Medical Center and the VA Pacific Islands Health Care Systems in Honolulu. Under the agreement, formed with the support and encouragement of U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye, the DoD/VA joint venture serves as a research and development centre for developing telemedicine and technology applications to support the health care needs of federal beneficiaries in the Pacific region. The Hui is jointly headquartered with the VA Pacific Islands Health Care Systems in Honolulu at Tripler Army Medical Center (TAMC).


Leslie Versweyveld

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