Clinical psychologist Dr. Loretta Malta hopes that her virtual reality program will help traumatized soldiers with “verbalizing the traumatic experience, instead of suppressing it.”
Weill Cornell Medical College researchers are using a virtual reality simulation called “Virtual Iraq” to better understand how symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develop. In their ongoing research trial, participating Iraq War and Gulf War veterans with and without PTSD are shown a brief, 3-D virtual-reality simulation of an urban combat scenario. They wear a headset, through which they hear, see, and — using a keypad — “move” through a “virtual world” in which images change in a natural way along with head and body movement.
A recent Archives of Internal Medicine study found that as many as 13 percent of recent veterans are diagnosed with PTSD.
The study’s principal investigator, Dr. Loretta Malta, a clinical psychologist at Weill Cornell Medical College, states: “It isn’t possible after a traumatic event to study, in a controlled way, conditions that lead to the development of specific types of PTSD symptoms. Usually this is studied by comparing people who develop PTSD months or even years after trauma exposure. With this pilot study, we are trying to develop a paradigm in which we can use virtual reality to learn more about how the responses of people exposed to trauma contribute to the development of PTSD re-experiencing symptoms, like intrusive memories or physiological reactivity to trauma reminders. By better understanding how PTSD symptoms develop, we hope to create effective prevention programs and improve current treatments.”
The researchers are testing the hypothesis that verbalizing the traumatic experience, instead of suppressing it, enables patients to better integrate the experience into regular conscious memory, in turn, making the triggering of intrusive traumatic memories (and other re-experiencing symptoms, like flashbacks) less likely. “Research suggests that memories formed during trauma exposure are easily cued by environmental stimuli, and memory suppression has been associated with the development, maintenance and severity of PTSD,” adds Dr. Malta.