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Treating Post Traumatic Stress With Virtual Reality

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It's a condition experts estimate affects up to one-third of Iraq War Veterans, post traumatic stress disorder. Veterans may come home physically healthy, but on the inside they're still dealing with the pain and terror of combat. Now scientists hope a trip through virtual reality can help them recover and better cope with the real world. The News On 6’s Heather Lewin reports on how it's helping here in Oklahoma.

The program is not a game, it is a virtual reality tour of the war zone in Iraq, and the closest most of us will get to being there. Researchers hope that service members suffering from post traumatic stress disorder will be able to let go of the trauma they experienced in combat by reliving it in a safe place.

"What happens in a terrible traumatic situation is everything you learn at that moment, every smell, every sense, everything, gets sort of encoded all over the place in your brain," said Dr. Elana Newman of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies. "It's almost hyper accessible, any little reminder brings up the whole thing."

That causes post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and for years doctors have used exposure therapy, basically having patients talk through it. But Dr. Newman says because the brain has learned it's painful patients often want to avoid bringing the memories back to the surface. This is where Virtual Iraq comes in.

Developed by a professor at the University of Southern California PTSD experts think it can guide those suffering through the events, and bring them out the other side.

"If you experience and go over those events in a safe environment, where you're no longer in harm, you'll learn to sort of file it correctly in your brain so that every little image won't come back in the same intensity," Newman said.

The program is still being tested, but Dr. Newman says once it's made more accessible the virtual therapy could be widely used, because PTSD is more of a problem in this war than years past.

"We have the smallest force we've ever had, so we have people going out again and again and again. So the toll on individuals serving their country is very great right now," Newman said.

Dr. Newman says the more exposure to trauma, the more likely you are to develop PTSD.

Right now there are only a few specialized places offering the Virtual Iraq treatment. Each system costs about $10,000.

WEB EXTRA: PSTD Virtual Iraq
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