New research suggests post-traumatic stress disorder can affect 10 to 30 percent of combat zone soldiers, depending on the conflict in which they served. Given the instability of the global environment the ranks of active duty and retired soldiers will continue to grow.
As such, PTSD is on the rise and is a target for military health care personnel. A number of PTSD-focused studies presented at a military health research forum evaluated the effectiveness of both pharmacologic and alternative treatment options.
A novel intervention included use of virtual environments and new medicines to help military personnel diagnosed with PTSD or other comorbidities. If effective, the therapy technique could be used for the general public.
“PTSD is a condition that has affected decades of war veterans, and treatments continue to evolve,” stated Captain E. Melissa Kaime, M.D., Director of the CDMRP.
According to experts, about 20 percent of combat veterans returning from Iraq suffer from mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) or PTSD.
Traditional treatment for these conditions consists of medication and psychotherapy, demanding frequent travel to a clinic, a potential hardship for many veterans.
Researchers led by Charles Levy, M.D., are attempting to leverage combat veterans’ comfort and familiarity with communications technology and immersive environments (through cell phones, the Internet, and video games) and build a prototype of a virtual world environment (VWE) in which to conduct therapy.
The VWE will simulate everyday life encounters that are challenging to those with mTBI/PTSD, and allow the veteran and therapist to confront and overcome barriers that block successful social reintegration.
The clinical team chose a supermarket as the virtual scenario where veterans could receive cognitive and emotional challenges, including following a shopping list, purchasing items, making change, colliding with other shopping carts, and engaging with clerks and other patrons at checkout.
Currently, a virtual supermarket is under construction that allows a therapist and patient, each at their own computer, to enter the virtual supermarket and experience these challenges together.
This research explores an innovative new concept. Previous use of virtual reality exposure among combat veterans has been limited to portraying battle as a part of exposure therapy.
“Oftentimes, the nuances of everyday life can unexpectedly trigger angry responses from warfighters hindered by mTBI and PTSD,” Levy said.
“This project shows great potential to expedite and expand care to veterans and wounded warriors in a short timeframe, in a way that minimizes travel for treatment, and in a cost-effective manner.”