Bioethics Blogs

VR and PTSD: Healing from trauma by confronting fears in virtual reality environments

By Katie Givens Kime
Image courtesy of Flikr

What are the ethical implications of therapeutically re-exposing patients to trauma via virtual reality technologies? Of the 2.7 million American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, at least 20% suffer from depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other studies peg that percentage even higher. As a chronic, debilitating mental illness, one PTSD symptom is hyperarousal, in which a person repeatedly re-experiences a trauma in the form of nightmares, panic attacks, and flashbacks.  One of the most long-trusted therapeutic approaches to PTSD is exposure therapy; now, virtual reality technology is increasingly being used to simulate exposure to traumatic events and to environments related to the traumatic event.

Image courtesy of Flikr

Last month’s Neuroethics and Neuroscience in the News event featured the recent research and observations of Barbara O. Rothbaum, who is the Paul A. Janssen Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology at the Emory University School of Medicine and Director of the Emory Veterans Program & Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program. Rothbaum outlined the way in which exposure therapy (with or without the aid of virtual reality technology) is based on principles of learning and also discussed reliable findings with animals and phobic disorders (Foa & Kozak, 1986). The underlying premise of such therapy is that repeated and prolonged exposure to feared but realistically safe stimuli leads to habituation, and eventually to extinction.

The virtual reality exposure therapy (VRE) combat environments for “Virtual Vietnam” (developed by Georgia Tech and Emory Universities) includes a virtual Huey helicopter, a “fly” over the jungles of Vietnam, a “walk” in clearings near jungles and swamps, and other imaginal immersions in Vietnam-related stimuli.

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