Virtual reality treatment for soldiers returning from Iraq

In early testing, system extends "exposure therapy" by giving clinicians exact control over how to return soldiers to stress-inducing situations.

Doctors have treated post-traumatic stress syndrome with psychotherapy, but these days, doctors are treating vets returning from Iraq with virtual reality, the BBC reports.

The immersive system combines realistic street scenes, sounds and odours to allow patients to relive traumatic events in a controlled environment. During the "exposure therapy," a clinician determines the intensity of the events the soldier experiences.

"We see immediate post-treatment gains," said Dr. Skip Rezzo of the University of Southern California and one of the team that developed the system.

The system seems to work most effectively with those with nightmares and flashbacks.

"Those are the cold clinical symptoms but this translates into being able to leave the house, being able to go to work or being able to continue your relationship with your wife or loved ones," said Dr Rezzo.

In exposure therapy, patients are asked to imagine a series of increasingly stressful events. In traditional therapeutic sessions, it doesn't work all that well because PTSD patients are trying to avoid reminders of the event.

"So what we do in virtual reality is put a person in virtual Iraq, but initially at a level where they only experience minimal anxiety."

To recreate scenes the system uses a headset that can show video-game quality images of one of two scenarios: a street scene and a desert.

These are controlled by a clinician, who can introduce different elements into the scenarios, from playing children to unexpected explosions. The time of day and conditions such as sand storms can also be manipulated.

To make it even more realistic, the system pumps in smells such as gunpowder, burning rubber and body odour. Speakers provide the sound, whilst off-the-shelf sub-woofers placed under the chair recreate movements.

Rezzo's teams has treated four patients successfully, although others dropped out after early sessions. A larger trial has begun, but Rezzo points out that the therapy is in very early testing.

"I don't want to sell this as a panacea but the results are encouraging," he said.