Virtual Reality in Exposure Therapy

Serving Those Who Served Their Country

For Marine Corps veteran Chris Merkle, coping with the lingering stress of his deployment in Iraq has meant embracing new technology created for combat veterans like himself. Skip Rizzo, PhD VR Research Director at the University of Southern California, commented that “Some people have tried many forms of therapy and this is the only thing that works for them.”

Image courtesy of Branimir Kvartuc., Institute for Creative Technologies, University of Southern California

It’s called Bravemind, and it’s a virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) simulation to help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Utilizing an immersive and realistic virtual environment enabled by AMD graphics technologies, Bravemind recreates unique interactive scenarios to help soldiers normalize the experiences they went through.

The end result?

A huge leap forward in their personal therapy. According to Merkle, “it allowed me to go back in time pretty much, and put me right back in that exact place... and I’m able to process that instead of avoiding it.” By providing his own input to make the scenario more life-like for his situation, Merkle was able to repeatedly experience and process what he went through — in his own words, fast-forwarding his therapy by two to three years.

Discover Virtual Reality in Healthcare

Powered by AMD FirePro™ graphics, Bravemind is the brainchild of Skip Rizzo, Director of Medical Virtual Reality at the University of Southern California, who was inspired to explore the possibilities of clinical VR in the early 1990s. But his true inspiration for Bravemind came when he saw a video clip of Full Spectrum Warrior™, a real-time tactical video game. With realistic graphics that looked like Iraq and Afghanistan, the game made him think back to his time as a clinician at the Veteran’s Administration (VA), doing PTSD treatment with Vietnam vets. Concerned that U.S. soldiers currently on tour in the Middle East would soon be returning home with Vietnam-level trauma, he decided to use his VR knowledge to help.

After receiving initial funding from the Office of Naval Research, Rizzo created his prototype with four scenarios: desert driving, mountain driving, U.S. driving, and a small Middle Eastern city. Within a few years, he received more funding to build out 14 different worlds, from an Afghan village to a remote mountain outpost, an industrial area, and more.

“When we come back, we really need assistance transitioning. I think this is an amazing tool that really helps us catch up to our peers.”

Chris Merkle, Marine Corps Veteran

While VR is becoming more and more recognized in the mainstream, it still has a long way to go. With the help of AMD, Rizzo is trying to spearhead a consortium to build enough systems for every VA facility. And there’s no denying the need. According to Merkle, “When we come back, we really need assistance transitioning. I think this is an amazing tool that really helps us catch up to our peers.”

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