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US doctors are treating soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by plunging them back into combat, using a virtual reality game that simulates battle scenes from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The therapeutic game, called Virtual Iraq or Virtual Afghanistan, was developed from the X-Box game Full Spectrum Warrior, a combat tactical simulation game launched with funding from the US Army.

Virtual Iraq or Afghanistan uses images delivered via a head-mounted display panel to plunge soldiers back into combat zones in Iraq or Afghanistan and recreate the traumatic experiences they had while at war, the project’s lead researcher Albert Rizzo of the University of Southern California said.

“At first blush, it seems counter-intuitive: why would you make somebody go through an approach where one of your goals is to make the patient feel a little bit anxious as they revisit their traumatic experiences?” Rizzo told reporters.

But researchers have found that by progressively raising a patient’s feelings of anxiety up to a moderate level while simultaneously encouraging the patient to mentally process and talk about their traumatic experience, they can bring down anxiety levels and decrease PTSD symptoms.

Those symptoms include recurring nightmares and flashbacks, emotional numbing, avoidance of places that stir memories and manifestations like hyper-vigilance, which can be a protective mechanism in a wartime setting but is often disruptive when the soldier returns to civilian life.

The game uses visual, audio and even smell stimuli to realistically recreate what the soldiers would have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Source: Karin Zeitvogel for AFP.

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