Wed, Feb 21, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Virtual images help treat soldiers' stress disorders


A "virtual Iraq" simulation that allows soldiers to relive and confront psychological trauma has produced promising results for the first handful of patients treated.

The trial of the software, which recreates the sights, smells, sounds and jolts of the battlefield, has been extended to a few dozen service personnel who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

The treatment is a much more potent version of imagination therapy, a technique in which therapists ask a patient to imagine scenarios connected with a traumatic event. Instead of imagining, the patients talk through their trauma with a therapist while wearing goggles that immerse them in a virtual reality battlefield.

"This is not a passive therapy where they simply sit back and are exposed to war scenes," said psychologist Skip Rizzo at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "It is a very interactive and engaging experience that the patient goes through where they tend to relive their experience but in a safe, supportive environment ... We are not in the business of re-traumatizing people."

The disorder can take weeks, months or years to develop. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, being on edge, emotional numbness and an inability to continue normal relationships with loved ones. Patients are often unable to work or leave home.

A course of the experimental therapy might begin with the patient standing next to a Humvee truck in the virtual world -- which is based on the computer game Full Spectrum Warrior. Once they are comfortable the therapist might ask them to get in, start the engine and drive away.

"Over the course of the sessions we gradually have them do things that are closer to their traumatic memory," Rizzo said. "We start adding in guns, bombs, insurgents, debris on the road, being attacked and so forth. We do this in a very measured and progressive fashion based on what the client can handle."

"I think the visuals simply set the stage ... the sound definitely produces specific emotional reactions," Rizzo told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

Sounds such as bombs are accompanied by vibrations from a sub-woofer speaker under the seat. Different smells are used including cordite, burning rubber, Iraqi spices and body odor.

The treatment consists of two sessions a week lasting up to 90 minutes. In between sessions patients are asked to listen to a recording of their version of events during the therapy. So far, four of those treated have had their symptoms reduced. Five others dropped out during treatment.

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