Evaluating virtual reality therapy for treating acute post traumatic stress disorder

Arlington 13 April 2005The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is funding three projects to evaluate virtual reality therapy for treatment of acute post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The three-year, approximately $4-million programme will examine how virtual reality can be used by therapists to treat PTSD in military personnel before the disorder disrupts their lives and careers.


ONR programme manager Cmdr. Russell Shilling explained: "Our goal is to provide therapists with innovative tools and techniques for early intervention and treatment of PTSD symptoms. Early intervention is key. Virtual reality therapy has proven effective in treating a wide variety of anxiety disorders including chronic PTSD, and we hope that it will be effective against acute PTSD related to combat. We also hope that this type of therapy, with its videogame-like qualities, will resonate well with the current generation of warfighters." The programme is funded through ONR's Medical and Biological Science and Technology Division.

PTSD is of particular concern to the United States Department of Defense because its effects can be debilitating. It develops after very traumatic or life-threatening events and can cause flashbacks, sleep problems and nightmares, as well as feelings of isolation and guilt.

James Spira of the Naval Medical Center San Diego will work with Ken Graap of Virtually Better Inc. in Atlanta and Dr. Albert (Skip) Rizzo from the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles to evaluate tools to treat PTSD in active-duty military members. Virtually Better will help integrate the sights and sounds of combat, as well as smell and other sensory factors. Rizzo is developing a flexible virtual reality toolset for therapists, using assets from the United States Army's "Full-Spectrum Warrior" videogame/training application.

Brenda Wiederhold at the Virtual Reality Medical Center in San Diego will work with James Spira and Rizzo as well as other experts on PTSD to study the effectiveness of virtual reality for treating acute PTSD in non-combat personnel such as medics and truck drivers. These service members are exposed to their own unique stresses and require different types of virtual reality scenarios.

Researcher Hunter Hoffman at the University of Washington in Seattle and Sarah Miyahira of the Pacific Telehealth and Technology Hui in Oahu, Hawaii will work with Raymond Folen at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii to examine the effectiveness of using a virtual reality based cognitive behavioural treatment for United States warfighters suffering from acute PTSD.

The Office of Naval Research manages science and technology research for the Navy and Marine Corps. ONR sponsors basic and applied research in oceanography, advanced materials, sensors, robotics, biomedical science and technology, electronics, surveillance, mathematics, manufacturing technology, information science, advanced combat systems, and technologies for ships, submarines, aircraft, and ground vehicles, and more.

More information on PTSD treatment is available in the VMW April 2005 article Virtual Reality PTSD therapy awarded research funding by U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research.

Leslie Versweyveld

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