Virtual Reality Therapy for Combat Stress

Psychologist Skip Rizzo leads a veteran of the Iraq war through a virtual reality therapy session.

Psychologist Skip Rizzo leads a veteran of the Iraq war through a virtual reality therapy session. "I like to look at this from training to toy to treatment," Rizzo says of the VR tool. Institute for Creative Technologies hide caption

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What the soldier sees -- behind the wheel of a Humvee, racing down a road in Iraq

What the soldier sees -- behind the wheel of a Humvee, racing down a desert road while dodging bombs, bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. Institute for Creative Technologies hide caption

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A therapist can change the VR environment with the tap of a pen on a touch-sensitive screen.

A therapist can change the VR environment with the tap of a pen on a touch-sensitive screen. Institute for Creative Technologies hide caption

itoggle caption Institute for Creative Technologies

A new, high-tech system designed to treat military veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — or PTSD — may be familiar to fans of a squad-based combat video game.

Using components from the popular game Full Spectrum Warrior, psychologist Skip Rizzo and his colleagues have fashioned a "virtual" world that simulates the sources of combat stress.

The project is a joint venture between the Institute for Creative Technologies — a cutting-edge research lab at the University of Southern California — and the Office of Naval Research. The object is to help veterans come to terms with what they've experienced in places like Iraq and Afghanistan by immersing vets in the sights and sounds of those theaters of battle.

The soldier being treated wears VR goggles and headphones. Using a tablet-based interface, a therapist can activate or remove the sounds of gunshots or the sight of smoke, depending on a patient's reaction. The idea is to re-introduce the patients to the experiences that triggered the trauma, gradually, until the memory no longer incapacitates them.

Eventually, Rizzo believes the therapy will include other stimuli, such as vibrations to simulate the impact of bombs or rumbling of tanks, and even the smells of war — the body odor, garbage and spices of urban combat, for example.

Early results from trials suggest virtual reality therapy is uniquely suited to a generation raised on video games. The gaming aspect of the treatment also helps to lessen the stigma associated with getting therapy.

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