Do Virtual Reality Benefits Carry Any Risks?

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By Debbie Gregory.

Researchers are exploring how Virtual Reality (VR) can help with everything from treating PTSD to overcoming addiction.

VR replicates an environment that simulates a physical presence in places in the real world or an imagined world, allowing interaction in that world. Virtual realities also artificially create sensory experiences including sight, touch, hearing, and smell.

There is, however, much that we don’t know about how the brain reacts to prolonged exposure to the new medium.

While the virtual world can help veterans overcome post-traumatic stress syndrome, there is the risk that overexposure to VR may generate its own trauma.

At the University of Southern California, pioneering VR researcher Albert “Skip” Rizzo has developed Virtual Iraq and Virtual Afghanistan VR software that is being used at dozens of VA facilities to help veterans plagued by PTSD.

In 2003, he says, he ran across a battle simulation game that the Army had helped

develop. He knew that exposure therapies had been shown to work for trauma cases.

“I said why not take this and modify this and use it as a virtual Iraq for people that come

back from the war with PTSD?” Rizzo said.

The idea is to allow patients to gradually confront their trauma through a series of

increasingly intense scenarios in the safety of a clinical setting, so that they can “unlearn the association between the stimuli and its consequences,” says Rizzo. He developed three scenarios, a sniper situation, a market place and the convoy on the highway.

“We try to address the trauma and activate a memory, and it’s hard medicine for a hard problem,” says Rizzo, the director of medical virtual reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. “But the point is to learn that the present can’t hurt you. For anyone saying that we’re re-traumatizing people, we say this is better than having them see Middle Eastern garb at a Walmart and freaking out.”

VR technology is still in its early days, and therefore so too is any research into what, if any negative affect it will have on the brain.

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