VR Has Potential to Heal
> 4/18/2006 12:09:59 PM

A study that used virtual reality as part of exposure therapy has shown the potential to become a potent weapon in treating men and women for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In an article from Clinical Psychiatry News, writer Damian McNamara discusses how Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, who serves as director of the trauma and anxiety recovery program in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, at Emory University in Atlanta, used virtual reality to expose Vietnam War vets to a clip that simulated the Vietnam War. In her small study, results were promising enough to begin testing the system as part of the treatment given to current Iraqi War veterans.

In recent years VR research has led to a greater understanding of how we interact with and perceive our surroundings. For researchers who seek to tap the utility of virtual environments, this has led to greater confidence in the bond between subjects and their alternate realities. As the article mentions, several groups have begun to work on generating specific environments to help treat specific causes of PTSD.

For example, investigators at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and the University of Washington in Seattle are simulating the World Trade Center attacks; researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Haifa, in Israel, are simulating terrorist bus bombings; and University of Buffalo, N.Y., investigators are simulating motor vehicle accidents.

In addition, investigators at the University of Lusofona in Portugal are creating a virtual Angola.

Last year I had the pleasure of meeting with several graduate students from the Center for Computer Integrated Systems for Microscopy and Manipulation (CISMM) at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Part of the imaging and manipulation research at CISMM relates to virtual reality and while there I was given a test run through a number of VR programs being developed there. When most people think of virtual reality, as I did once, they probably think of movies like Tron or Lawnmower Man, but I was absolutely floored by the level of detail and precision that these virtual environments were able to create. Many of the programs that I experienced were only prototypes or works-in-progress, but nevertheless, when I was placed in a virtual fish tank, I was surprised when I reached out and didn't feel a fish.

As they say, seeing is believing, and we are at a point in terms of visualization technology, where virtual reality is a viable treatment option for exposing those afflicted with PTSD to healing stimuli in a safe treatment environment. As the article mentions, this type of therapy would only be one part of a full treatment regimen, but the realness of these fake realities certainly could become a powerful tool. Whether it's a patient returning from Iraq or a New Yorker still grappling with the events of 9/11, virtual reality will recreate situations with the ability to heal.

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