US doctors are treating soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by plunging them back into combat using a virtual reality game that simulates scenes from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The therapeutic game, called Virtual Iraq or Virtual Afghanistan, was developed from the X-Box game Full Spectrum Warrior, a combat tactical simulation game launched with funding from the US Army.
Virtual Iraq or Afghanistan uses images delivered via a head-mounted display panel to plunge soldiers back into combat zones in Iraq or Afghanistan and recreate the traumatic experiences they had while at war, the project's lead researcher Albert Rizzo said Tuesday.
"At first blush, it seems counter-intuitive: why would you make somebody go through an approach where one of your goals is to make the patient feel a little bit anxious as they revisit their traumatic experiences?" the University of Southern California professor told reporters.
But researchers have found that by progressively raising a patient's feelings of anxiety up to a moderate level while simultaneously encouraging the patient to mentally process and talk about their traumatic experience, they can bring down anxiety levels and decrease PTSD symptoms.
Those manifestations include recurring nightmares and flashbacks, emotional numbing, avoidance of places that stir memories and hyper-vigilance.
An estimated 20 to 30 percent of soldiers who have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan come home with the mental disorder, according to US military estimates.
Three randomized control trials of the virtual reality therapy games are currently underway.
And in one study, 16 of 20 soldiers who were treated with the simulator game developed by Rizzo and others at USC's Institute for Creative Technology no longer met PTSD criteria at the end of therapy.