HolidayBuyer's Guide

Treating PTSD becoming a (virtual) reality

As tens of thousands of soldiers return from Iraq, many seek medical help for physical wounds, while others have a less evident but equally life-threatening problem: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Psychotherapy's effectiveness can vary, but now soldiers have another alternative: virtual reality simulation.

The Institute for Creative Technologies has joined forces with the Naval Medical Center San Diego, which recently received a $4 million PTSD research grant, to develop the final technology: a virtual reality simulator designed to help soldiers overcome PTSD--or at least lessen its severity.

The way it works is this: Soldiers strap on a headset so they can see an imaginary screen and are virtually transported into a specially designed, interactive video game called Full Spectrum Warrior. While playing, soldiers are taken through different scenarios they possibly encountered during their time in battle. Situations might include walking around an Iraqi village, shooting an enemy, or searching the homes of citizens.

Sessions last 90 minutes and each participant is asked to participate in 12 sessions. The program has two separate classes: one for soldiers who were in the frontline and one for those who worked outside of the battlefield.

Although the scenarios will evoke negative emotions in a soldier, researchers hope that by seeing these conditions a number of times, and being trained to react to them in a calm fashion, a soldier can learn to cope with the fears of battle and hopefully recover from PTSD.

Some critics of the technique, however, express concern that virtual reality may have an effect contrary to the one intended. Upon seeing disturbing situations and being forced to interact with them repeatedly, some say, soldiers may develop an even deeper emotional pain. And once additional damage is done, it becomes even more difficult to repair.

Virtual reality has not been proven as effective as therapy, so it is often a last resort for soldiers--a route usually taken after regular pyschotherapy techniques have been exhausted. However, the technology may eventually prove to be an advanced therapy technique for those who need to face their fears in a contained environment.