Can Virtual Reality Help Those With PTSD?

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[MUSIC PLAYING]
BARBARA PITCHBAUM
PTSD is still a fairly recent diagnosis. It came about in the 1980s. What we want is treatment options because one of the best predictors of what's the right treatment for each person is their choice. In general, people with PTSD, they can't escape it day or night. They very often feel like danger is right around the corner.

But war veterans they know they're not in a war zone, yet their bodies are responding as if there's the same level of threat. It's exhausting. People are scared to do things.

One of the treatments that's effective is called "exposure therapy." We help someone confront what they're scared of but in a therapeutic manner so that their fear decreases. I really think the virtual reality's time has come in all kinds of use, but specifically, health care and mental health care for a number of bases in VA hospitals and private clinics have it.

What we're helping them confront is the memory of the trauma because they're avoidant. They don't want to think about it, and so we go over and over and over it.

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We think it's harder to avoid in the virtual reality because it's such a potent stimulus. So we ask them to go back and describe what happened in the present tense as if it's happening now.

SETH NORRHOLM
So if you have an individual who was in a Humvee that was hit by an IED explosion, they say, "When I get behind the wheel of a car, I feel like I'm going to die. I need to get out of that situation." You'll bring someone into the lab and they'll be exposed to the conditioned stimuli-- so anything that was related to the roadside bomb. And so they're learning that this trigger might not be so dangerous in this situation.

So one of the ways that we can measure that is through physiological reactivity. When somebody is telling us about their traumatic event, when somebody is in the virtual reality environment, we put a number of electrodes on. You can measure someone's startle response by putting electrodes under their eye.

If you hear a loud noise, you're going to blink your eyes. It's a defensive measure. You can measure skin conductance. So if somebody is really engaged or anxious, you're going to get more perspiration on the skin. The only thing you can look at is how much their heart rate is changing throughout the session.

What the physiology does is allow us to get some more of the picture. What's happening physiologically is oftentimes disconnected from what you're hearing. So what these give us are objective measures of what's going on inside a person and how well they're doing.

BARBARA PITCHBAUM
I've had people say, "I don't know why I fought so hard to survive if this is my life." I've had people tell me, after treatment, I feel like the person I was before this happened. And I didn't think that was possible. So I know it's possible. I've become a real believer in the resiliency of the human spirit. [MUSIC PLAYING]