Advertisement

Promising new treatment for PTSD revealed — how it can help veterans

Combining virtual reality exposure with low electrical brain stimulation offers promising results for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a study published Wednesday found.
Combining virtual reality exposure with low electrical brain stimulation offers promising results for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a study published Wednesday found.

Combining virtual reality exposure with low electrical brain stimulation offers promising results for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a study published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry found.

Although it is not systematically tracked, about 6% of Americans — and an even larger percentage of veterans — will have PTSD at some point in their lives, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

The mental health condition develops after a shocking, scary or dangerous experience. It causes people to feel stressed or frightened, even when they are not in danger. Psychotherapy and medications are used to manage symptoms.

For the new study, researchers at Brown University conducted trials among 54 US veterans at the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center who had been diagnosed with chronic PTSD.

Some were treated with a constant, low, pain-free electrical current to the frontal lobe of their brain while they experienced six 25-minute sessions of a highly immersive sensory VR simulation of a war zone over a two- to three-week period.

A study published in JAMA Psychiatry on Wednesday found that participants who received electrical brain stimulation during sessions of VR exposure reported a significant reduction in PTSD symptom severity. Getty Images
A study published in JAMA Psychiatry on Wednesday found that participants who received electrical brain stimulation during sessions of VR exposure reported a significant reduction in PTSD symptom severity. Getty Images
PTSD develops after a shocking, scary or dangerous experience. It causes people to feel stressed or frightened, even when they are not in danger. Gorodenkoff – stock.adobe.com
PTSD develops after a shocking, scary or dangerous experience. It causes people to feel stressed or frightened, even when they are not in danger. Gorodenkoff – stock.adobe.com

Other veterans only experienced the VR simulation.

All participants reported meaningful reductions in their PTSD symptoms after one month.

However, the group who underwent VR simulation and electrical brain stimulation reported a greater reduction in the severity of their symptoms.

In just two weeks, participants subjected to the combined treatment showed similar progress to those who completed 12 weeks of VR exposure therapy — and the benefits continued to grow over time even after the therapy had stopped.

“This is a different and innovative way of approaching treatment where we’re combining the best aspects of psychotherapy, neuroscience and brain stimulation to help people get better,” study author Noah Philip, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and the lead mental health researcher at the Providence VA Center, said in a statement.

Researchers at Brown University conducted trials among 54 US veterans at the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center who had been diagnosed with chronic PTSD. Getty Images
Researchers at Brown University conducted trials among 54 US veterans at the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center who had been diagnosed with chronic PTSD. Getty Images
The group of veterans who underwent VR simulation and electrical brain stimulation reported a greater reduction in the severity of their symptoms. AP
The group of veterans who underwent VR simulation and electrical brain stimulation reported a greater reduction in the severity of their symptoms. AP

Traditional PTSD treatments combine medication and exposure therapy, both of which can be particularly difficult for veterans. Medications can have significant adverse effects — and reliving trauma through exposure therapy can be extremely tough.

In fact, up to 50% of patients drop out of traditional exposure therapy, and many others refuse to even start it, the study noted.

Taking that into account, the researchers utilized a standardized war zone VR simulation to include trauma-inducing elements, but they didn’t replicate any one participant’s personal experience.

“It can be difficult for patients to talk about their personal trauma over and over, and that’s one common reason that participants drop out of psychotherapy,” Philip said. “This VR exposure tends to be much easier for people to handle.”

Experts have also been encouraged by PTSD treatments that involve “magic mushrooms,” MDMA and a Mediterranean diet.

“There’s a lot of promise here, and that offers hope,” Philip said about his own findings.