Could Virtual Reality Soon Be Used for PTSD Therapy?

A study published in the April 18, 2014 online edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that virtual reality exposure therapy, or VRE, could treat PTSD symptoms in combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Researchers at Emory University recruited 156 veterans in need of PTSD therapy for the study. They found that VRE greatly improved the veterans’ symptoms, especially when administered in conjunction with d-Cycloserine (DCS), a drug that has been used to treat anxiety and stress disorders, including phobias.

DCS and Minimal VRE Effective for PTSD Therapy

Of the 156 combat vets with PTSD recruited for the study, 53 were given DCS, 50 received alprazolam (or Xanax) and 53 received a placebo prior to undergoing five sessions of VRE. The researchers discovered that DCS significantly enhanced the results of VRE for those veterans who demonstrated a high level of emotional learning during their sessions.

Objective measures, like levels of the stress hormone cortisol and the startle response, allowed researchers to form an accurate measure of study participants’ emotional states and reactions. Study participants also self-reported their levels of fear and stress during the experiment.

The Results

While the combination of DCS and VRE improved stress reactivity in the PTSD sufferers, researchers found that alprazolam hampered the study participants’ recovery from PTSD. The study results would seem to suggest that alprazolam, and perhaps similar drugs, are not an effective PTSD therapy.

Lead researcher Barbara Rothbaum, Ph.D., is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. And, director of the university’s Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program. He said of the experiment, “D-cycloserine, combined with only five sessions of the virtual reality exposure therapy, was associated with significant improvements in objective measures of startle and cortisol and overall PTSD symptoms for those who showed emotional learning in sessions.”

In addition to six visits for PTSD treatment, study participants also received follow-up assessments. These were at three, six and 12 months after the therapy ended. The VRE consisted of 30 to 45 minutes of exposure to a virtual reality environment via a head-mounted display. The VRE was designed to match the stimuli the PTSD victims described. They included a variety of scenes in Iraq and Afghanistan, seen from multiple points of view. Study participants took a pill – either DCS, a placebo or alprazolam – about 30 minutes before beginning VRE.

Dr. Rothbaum said that the researchers were “very excited” by the results of the study.

What Methods Are Currently Used for PTSD Therapy?

While the current methods used for PTSD treatment are very effective for most people, some do not respond to them as well as others. Because PTSD symptoms can lead to depression, substance abuse, self-destructive actions and even violence, experts need to explore as many avenues as possible to find methods of PTSD therapy that work for everyone.

Some treatment methods currently in use include:

  • Family therapy. The symptoms of PTSD often affect not just the sufferer, but all of those close to him or her. Family therapy is invaluable to help loved ones comprehend the daily struggles of a person coping with PTSD. It can alleviate the relationship problems PTSD often causes, and help members of the family communicate better.
  • Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT for PTSD generally consists of gradually, carefully, under the supervision of a trained counselor, “exposing” yourself to the feelings, thoughts, and situations that remind you of the trauma. People with PTSD sometimes develop avoidant symptoms, meaning that they go numb emotionally, lose memories of the traumatic event and avoid things that remind them of it. CBT can help relieve these feelings, and can also address irrational thoughts and feelings that may stem from the PTSD.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This form of PTSD therapy incorporates rhythmic stimulation, like eye movements or left-to-right hand tapping or sounds, with elements of talk therapy and CBT. Many believe this method unlocks the brain’s information processing system. Thus, allowing victims of trauma to finally process their experiences.
  • Medication. Antidepressants can help treat secondary symptoms associated with PTSD, such as anxiety or depression. They cannot treat the PTSD itself, however.
  • Self-help. As with any other mental illness, self-help is effective in managing the symptoms of PTSD. But, it must be used in conjunction with appropriate treatment. Self-help can include reaching out for support, practicing relaxation techniques and spending time in nature.

Help for PTSD at Delray Center for Healing

If you or someone close to you needs PTSD treatment, it’s important to seek help right away. PTSD symptoms can get worse and can take a toll on your physical health. Our program for PTSD therapy is one of the best in the country.

Call today at 888-699-5679 to learn how you can move forward.