Virtual Reality Is No Game for PTSD Patients Reliving Traumatic Events

Editor’s Note: U.S. Medicine writer Annette Boyle recently took an inside tour of the virtual reality program that has shown promise in helping veterans who suffer from PTSD. Here is her account.

ATLANTA — It might look like a game, but the virtual reality environment at Emory University has a very serious purpose: helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) move on from memories that have haunted them for months or years.

Participants often say, “the images on the screen look like a video game.” With the virtual reality helmet on, they find that “once they start talking about their story, it really does cue their own memories,” said Maryrose Gerardi, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta. Experiencing a demonstration, it is easy to see how powerful a treatment virtual reality exposure (VRE) can be.

Virtual Iraq uses electronically re-created environs, such as the inside of a Humvee, as well as sites, sounds and smells, to help those suffering from PTSD revisit the events that affected them so profoundly. Photos courtesy of Skip Rizzo, PhD, [email protected], creator of the software.

Inside the helmet, the VRE equipment shows the countryside or cityscape customized to the participant’s own experience — for example, in a line at a checkpoint, going under a bridge, driving on a dusty road behind another Humvee, or walking through a market. In the Humvee setting, the patient might be a passenger, driver or in the turret. As a driver, a turn of the head with the helmet reveals passengers in the right seat and the back and someone standing in the turret, whoever was in the vehicle at the time of the memory.

The scene can be adjusted to show morning, afternoon, dusk and overcast lighting as well as the view through night-vision goggles.

“It’s about tailoring it to their experience, recreating the memory that they are recounting to me,” said Gerardi. That includes time of day, what they were talking about, how they felt and details about the mission.

The experience is not just visual, however. In the Humvee scenario, the platform and seat provide realistic jostling down the bumpy road. There’s chatter on the radio and yelling in the town. A controller moves the Humvee forward or, in the city scenario, moves the participant forward in the direction chosen on foot.

“We add odors, too, if they are part of the memory,” said Gerardi. “Diesel fuel is common, but we also have spices for market scenes. Sometimes people recall the smell of garbage or cordite, and we can include those. They play directly into the amygdala and can be potent cues to recall the memory.”

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