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Virtual Reality: Treating PTSD and Addiction

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It’s no secret that many military veterans develop post-traumatic stress disorder from their time in combat. A 2004 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that nearly one in six military members who served in Iraq suffer from some level of PTSD.

But when it comes to the often-harsh reality of treating PTSD to help overcome a substance abuse problem, could virtual reality be the answer?

Using Technology

Researchers at numerous universities across the country are now conducting studies in the hopes of answering that question. The bulk of this work has been authored by Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Ph.D., a research scientist and professor with the Institute for Creative Technologies and Department of Psychiatry/School of Gerontology at UC Davis.

Rizzo has created virtual reality software to help military veterans returning from combat “unlearn the association between the stimuli and its consequences.” This could not only help treat the PTSD that many newly returning veterans suffer from, but also the drug addiction that accompanies it.

The software was created as part of a $4 million program funded by the Office of Naval Research. It recreates settings and scenarios frequently found during combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, allowing patients to gradually relive these experiences under controlled conditions and with the help of a clinician. This reduces the effects of these experiences and can ultimately help treat anxiety disorders like PTSD.

“Our aim here is not to re-traumatize people, but rather to re-expose them to relevant traumatic events in a graduated way that they can handle,” said Rizzo. “The point is to learn that the present can’t hurt you. For anyone saying that we’re re-traumatizing people, we say this is better than having them see Middle Eastern garb at a Wal-Mart and freaking out.”

The Unknown

But the belief that virtual reality treatment might do harm than good in trying to treat PTSD and addiction is echoed by many in the medical community. Some researchers believe that having addicts relive traumatic moments could actually worsen their anxiety. There also haven’t been any studies which proved, or disproved, whether virtual reality exposure is more helpful than harmful. However, some research projects have shown that long-term exposure to VR can have an overall negative impact.

“We don’t know what VR does to the brain yet, in part because the best brain studies require MRIs, where the head needs to be still and that’s not happening with VR,” said Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. “[But] I can tell you that after working in VR for 20 years, I never spent more than 20 minutes with a headset on at a time.”

Although more work still needs to be done to determine how virtual reality can best play a role in addiction treatment, the early signs are promising. By removing one of the biggest triggers of substance abuse that military veterans often face, it will open the door for a successful recovery and a sober life.

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