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Virtual Reality Experience Helps Soldiers Recover From War Trauma

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ATLANTA (AP) _ Scientists hope a high-tech virtual experience that mimics the battlegrounds of Iraq can be used to help veterans recover from the trauma of war.

The Emory University study is designed to help find a new way to reduce or eliminate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that plagues up to one-third of Iraq War veterans.

Virtual reality ``exposure'' therapy has been used to battle post-traumatic stress for a decade. The Emory study of 150 soldiers with PTSD is trying to prove that virtual reality can work better and faster when subjects take a drug once widely used to treat tuberculosis.

The drug, d-Cycloserine or DCS, affects a region of the brain called the amygdala that processes memories and emotional reactions like fear. Research shows the drug can also decrease fear.

Aaron Beach, a 23-year-old Army veteran from Atlanta, is enrolled in the study which virtually brings him back to the war he left overseas.

Beach smells burning rubber, diesel fuel, even body odor as he sits behind the steering wheel of his Humvee in the virtual experience. Then, suddenly, gunfire crackles and Beach feels a jolt as a rocket-propelled grenade blasts his vehicle, shattering his hand and wounding a buddy.

``It puts you back there, for sure,'' Beach said. ``The stuff doesn't look totally real, but it all feels real. It's scary.''

The problem for Beach is the scene also plays out in his head when he's not wearing the Darth Vader-like virtual reality helmet in the Emory lab of Dr. Maryrose Gerardi.

In everyday life, visions of Iraq come to Beach when he hears a loud noise, when he closes his eyes, while riding his motorcycle, in crowds, when he spots garbage or parked cars on the roadside.

Neither Beach nor the scientists yet know whether he is taking DCS, a tranquilizer or a placebo. But Beach says he's less jumpy and is feeling better after five sessions.

During the sessions, the soldiers often get nervous. A few have had to take off helmets for a break. Others have cried.

``I am deeply touched by the pain I witness,'' Gerardi said, ``and it's always an honor for me to be allowed to share it.''
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