Post-traumatic stress disorder causes people to feel unexpectedly anxious or threatened even though they are safe and out of danger. Members of the military, first-responders and police officers may be more likely than most to struggle with PTSD. Now researchers are testing a new therapy designed to speed recovery.
In 2004, during a deployment to Iraq, former US Marine Jimmy Castellanos came under fire.
Jimmy says, "it wasn’t until hours later that we learned that our platoon was hit and that my roommate had been killed.”
It wasn’t until a decade later that Jimmy began to process the trauma as a medical student in New York City.
Jimmy says, “when I got up in the morning to get ready and I would put on my back pack to go to class, it would always remind me of putting on a pack. As ridiculous as it would sound for one millionth of a second I would always wonder where’s my rifle?”
JoAnn Difede, Ph.D., director of the Program for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian is developing a type of exposure therapy using virtual reality.
Participants navigate through a number of computer-generated environments. Each scenario is personalized to fit a stressful situation from the past.
Difede says, “you and I might see an overpass and think oh there’s an overpass and not think twice about it. If you’re in that convoy, that’s a location for snipers.”
The scenario is repeated during a ninety minute session once a week for nine weeks.
“The idea of the treatment is to teach the person, their brain, if you will, that those cues aren’t scary anymore. Nothing bad is going to happen,” explained Difede.
Jimmy asys the simulations were tough to watch, at first, but he knows there are countless veterans who could eventually benefit.
“If they had access to this level of therapy, this kind of technology, I think their lives would be changed,” Jimmy adds.
In addition to the virtual reality scenarios, professor Difede’s trial is also testing how adding a drug that enhances learning impacts the recovery. The virtual reality trial is being conducted at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, at Walter Reed in D.C. and at the VA hospital in Long Beach, California.