New Technologies to Treat the Scars of War
> 8/4/2006 8:59:57 AM

Back in April we wrote about how advances in virtual reality technologies were putting powerful tools in the hands of therapists and doctors working with those who have suffered from combat related post traumatic stress disorder. In the August issue of Wired magazine writer Jay Dixit follows up on this exciting new treatment in an article titled "The War on Terror."

What makes Dixit's piece so worthwhile is his attention to detail and flair for describing the virtual environments created as part of the exposure therapy. The tenets behind virtual reality treatment have been around for a while. Exposure therapy, as it is often called, treats post traumatic stress disorder sufferers, as well as those grappling with debilitating phobias, by gradually exposing them to the stimuli that cause them stress. By approaching the stressors in a controlled environment, and discussing their feelings both before and after, the afflicted can begin to work toward a place of increased peace and stability.

Before visualization technologies, doctors and therapists needed to find more creative options for use in their sessions. This could mean using photographs or even just memories that the client had refused to revisit. Now, virtual reality scenarios created using the latest in video game software can literally recreate scenes of battle. The image below comes from one such session in which the person receiving treatment drives a humvee through an Iraqi war zone.

Navy psychologist Rob McLay and USC clinical psychologist Skip Rizzo are the driving forces behind the current version of VR treatment, built using the game Full Spectrum Warrior, a successful console and PC, conflict simulation game. Rizzo is able to modify the software to fit specific criteria and to increase or decrease the "volume" of the stress. In that way a patient can walk down an uninhabited street in his first session, and then later that street might also include shouts audible from inside some buildings. Gunfire, explosions, vehicles and other human characters can all be added or removed. The level of exposure can go from relatively passive to a full on battle situation throughout the course of the therapy. Of course, vital signs are monitored throughout the treatment, ensuring that the stimulation does not exceed acceptable levels of stress.

Violent video games have been at the center of many a negative report and news story as of late. But in the case of virtual reality exposure treatment, the violence is a necessary evil in laying a groundwork for recovery. Soldiers are returning from battle changed men. Readjusting to civilian life can be difficult, but utilizing new technologies in the future will give therapists new options in helping to end the pain of post traumatic stress disorder.

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