Health

Health Beat: Virtual reality for PTSD

Health Beat: Virtual reality for PTSD

NEW YORK - In 2004, during a deployment to Iraq, former United States Marine Jimmy Castellanos came under fire.

"It wasn't until hours later that we learned that our platoon was hit and that my roommate had been killed," Castellanos said.

It wasn't until a decade later that Castellanos began to process the trauma as a medical student in New York City.

"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," Castellanos said. "As ridiculous as it would sound for one millionth of a second, I would always wonder where's my rifle?"

JoAnn Difede, 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.

"You and I might see an overpass and think, 'Oh, there's an overpass,' and not think twice about it," Difede said. "If you're in that convoy, that's a location for snipers."

The scenario is repeated during a 90-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.

Castellanos said 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," said Castellanos.

In addition to the virtual reality scenarios, 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.

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