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.
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.
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, PhD, who 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, said of the experiment, “D-cycloserine, combined with only five sessions of the virtual reality exposure therapy, was assocated 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 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.
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:
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.
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Since 2003, the Delray Center for Healing has provided exceptional psychiatric and therapeutic care for mental health, eating, and substance use disorders. To learn more about our philosophy and treatment approach, download our free e-book, “Psychiatry Redefined,” written by our founder and medical director, Raul J. Rodriguez, MD.