Credit: Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT)

The University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) is an academic research center that combines creative narrative with advanced immersive techniques such as virtual reality to provide veterans with urgently needed options in the treatment of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Albert “Skip” Rizzo and Arno Hartholt began the Bravemind: Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy research project in 2005. The therapy program is currently in over 80 sites that include VR hospitals, military bases, and universities.

Treatments with immersive technologies like virtual reality involve exposure therapy. The patient dealing with PTSD or other disorders is encouraged to confront traumatic memories in virtual settings with the help of a trained therapist.

“More than just sights and sounds,” explains Dr. Rizzo, “Bravemind uses a virtual reality headmounted display, directional 3-D audio, vibrations, and smells to generate a truly immersive recreation of the events that can be regulated at a pace the patient can handle.”

“We help people to go back to the things that they were traumatized by, help them to confront those things, to face them, to talk about them,” he adds. Then, over a period of time, he points out that “what you see is a gradual decline in the anxiety or the fear response.”

Young military personnel might even respond better to something like exposure therapy than traditional “talk” therapy because they’ve grown up with computers and digital gaming technology. Considering the fact that on average, 17 U.S. military veterans commit suicide each day and the suicide rate is highest among younger veterans ages 18 to 34, tools that take advantage of current technology are desirable.

The incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder varies slightly depending on which conflict a veteran was involved with, ranging from 12% of Gulf War veterans to 15% of Vietnam veterans, but the fact remains that many of our service members suffer from emotional trauma so it’s essential that we find tools to address the problems.

The Bravemind VR Exposure Therapy software was originally supported by funding from the Department of Defense (Army, Office of Naval Research, Air Force) and more recently it has received additional support from Dell Computers, AMD, Intel, The Thye Trust, and Infinite Hero Foundation.

Bravemind is also the the driving force behind StrongMind, a therapy program that uses the cutting edge technology of virtual reality to help veterans and service members as part of the SoldierStrong Foundation, a non-profit that partners with the Veterans Administration.

While Bravemind is currently being used primarily in VA hospitals and on military bases, the software and virtual reality exposure therapy in general can be used to treat a wide variety of disorders for any individual.