Mark Wiederhold, MD, PhD, President, Virtual Reality Medical Center, appeared before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on April 1, to explain how his company tests virtual reality therapy to treat PTSD. According to Dr. Wiederhold, his company is now testing virtual reality therapy to treat PTSD in five VA hospitals with requests from six additional facilities, plus the technology is also being tested in Navy facilities.
Virtual reality technology has been used to treat patients for the past 12 years with an overall success rate of 92%. The success rate is defined as a reduction in symptoms, improved work performance or the successful completion of a task which was previously impossible.
He continued to say that the research protocol works by allowing the therapist to gradually expose the combat veteran to distressing stimuli in the virtual scenarios, while teaching the study participant to regulate breathing and physiological arousal. After a number of sessions, the “fight or flight” response to distressing stimuli is extinguished. The advantage of virtual reality is that it helps make it safe for the veteran to engage emotionally, therefore allowing the fear structure to be accessed and the abnormal response to be extinguished.
Dr. Wiederhold suggested the need to correlate the progress of virtual reality therapy not only with psychophysiology, but also with brain imaging. His researchers have been collaborating with other researchers, and have postulated that an “fMRI signature” or functional brain imaging signature for PTSD could possibly lead to more targeted treatments.
Secondly, VR can be used both alone and in combination with neuroprotective agents such as antioxidants, to conduct stress inoculation training pre-deployment. Lastly, virtual reality therapy may be an important piece of the puzzle as tools are developed that can assess and treat the many co-morbid conditions that accompany PTSD. For example, VR can be useful in both cognitive rehabilitation for TBI and in physical rehabilitation for veterans with amputations.