Upstate News

July 30, 2009
Doretta Royer 315 464-4833

Upstate offers ?Virtual Iraq’ to help veterans overcome post traumatic stress disorder

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Veterans who suffer from combat-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) now have the newest, research-validated method of treatment available to them through Upstate Medical University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

The treatment—called Virtual Iraq—uses components of the popular video game, Full Spectrum Warrior, as a way for patients to deal with the fears and anxieties resulting from exposure to the horrors of war.

“Service members who suffer from combat-related PTSD experience recurrent trauma associated memories, flashbacks, accompanied by extreme anxiety,” said Robbi Saletsky, Ph.D., Upstate clinical associate professor and director of the Cognitive Behavior Program for Depression and Anxiety Disorders. “As a result, they tend to want to avoid this discomfort and any triggers that could elicit these memories.

“Unfortunately, attempts to reduce distress and painful memories, may result in substance abuse, numbing of emotions, social isolation, and depression. The effective treatment involves approaching their feared memories in a systematic and controlled manner,” she added.

Virtual Iraq immerses the patient in computer-simulated combat situations similar to those that initially caused their fear and anxiety. After repeated and prolonged exposure to the scenario, the patient can experience the feelings associated with the trauma, organize and process the memory, express their thoughts and feelings to the therapist and then begin to heal.

As an example, Saletsky notes that while walking down a city street, a simple backfire from a car may stir a patient’s memory of a comrade’s death by gunshot, causing the patient to become fearful, anxious, avoidant and unable to function normally in daily life.

“With prompts from the patient, the therapist can recreate the sights, sounds and smells associated with the trauma memory, the comrade’s death by gunfire” said Saletsky. “This allows the patient to better understand the source of the fear, talk about and experience, the trauma scene and ultimately reduce the intensity of the distress associated with the memory. This also enables the patient to be less avoidant and begin to cope better in his or her every day life.”

The Virtual Iraq system consists of two computers, each equipped with a 3D graphics card that allows the therapist to introduce several simulated scenarios of combat threats, such as roadside bombings and gun warfare, and display dozens of settings, such as soldiers in a Humvee as well as sights found in Iraq or Afghanistan, including people in a marketplace, a desert or a mosque.

The system also includes a device for olfactory stimulation, allowing the therapist to introduce odors associated with war, such as gunpowder, burning rubber, garbage and smoke; and a platform and seat that gives the patient the sensations of vibrations and jolts.

One computer is operated by the therapist who can select variables from a menu to accurately tailor the presented material to closely resemble the feared scenario. The second computer allows the patient to move through the simulated scenarios through special headgear and a joystick (to maneuver through the environment).

A Virtual Iraq treatment session can run anywhere from 40 to 50 minutes. The number of sessions depends on the patient’s needs. The treatment is covered by most insurance.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that can develop following a terrifying event. Often, people with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb and disconnected. Other symptoms can include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, insomnia, agitation, and hyper-vigilance.

Virtual Reality Exposure has also proven effective for a number of specific phobias including fear of flying, fear of heights, fear of public speaking and fear of storms.

Contact the Virtual Reality Exposure Program for additional details at 315-464-3115.

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