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Military Hospitals Experiment with Virtual Reality


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good Morning.

Today we'll report on American troops bound for Iraq and some just returning. Veterans may want to forget what happened in Iraq but some may have to remember in order to recover. So military and veterans hospitals are trying to an experiment, helping soldiers relive their worst moments in a virtual Iraq.

Here's NPR's John McChesney.

JOHN McCHESNEY: At the Naval medical center in San Diego, Navy Lieutenant Commander Robert McClay helps me adjust a special helmet - one of those that has a video screen inside. He adds a pair of headphones and hands me a computer game console.

I'm sitting in a Humvee, which exists in a computer-generated world. If I turn my head, I'm looking out the side window or over at the passenger side. There's another Humvee in front of me on a desert road. It's a cloudy day. I press forward on the joystick and a convoy begins to move down the road and my seat begins to vibrate.

Lieutenant Commander ROBERT McCLAY (Navy Psychiatrist): We can control different aspects of that. We can change the weather. Right now, it looks out quite pleasant. I can make it a little later in the night, into dusk, to tick up a sandstorm around you. Up ahead, there'll be a statue of Saddam Hussein. On your right, palm trees, desert environment.

McCHESNEY: If I were a patient suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Commander McClay would have already talked to me about some of my experiences in Iraq in order to give him an idea of what kind of scene to create. He can control almost everything I see and hear and smell. That's right. He can create the odor of diesel fuel, burning rubber, or gun powder, among other things.

Lt. Cdr. McCLAY: And as you approach this overpass that's up ahead, we're going to start to add some things that might be a little more stressful. And to begin with, I'm going to have a Black Hawk helicopter fly over the top of you.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

McCHESNEY: I raise my head and I see that chopper flying by.

Lt. Cdr. McCLAY: I can start to add some chaos in the background here. So we'll have explosions by the side of the road.

(Soundbite of explosions and gunfire)

McCHESNEY: Insurgents spring up and bullets pierce the Humvee windshield. Once I'm out of the virtual reality rig, the obvious question comes up - why have patients relived this kind of horrific experience?

Lt. Cdr. McCLAY: I admit as well, when I first heard about this, it seemed very counter-intuitive, and I was like why on earth would you want to use virtual reality to treat post-traumatic stress disorder? The first answer for why we do it is that it's been proven to be effective.

McCHESNEY: McClay acknowledges that his successes are part of a very small sample of patients so far. He says traditional treatment called exposure therapy, where patients imagine and tell of their experiences, doesn't always evoke the full story. He says the virtual experience is designed to prod the patient to go further.

Lt. Cdr. McCLAY: We try to have the patient actually be narrating their own experience, that they are saying, you know, I'm going through here, and what actually had happened to them. And to a large point, we're coaching them and supporting them through that; you know, is that a little too much for you? Right now just sort of asking how they're doing and checking in.

McCHESNEY: The graphics, by the way, are not as realistic as those in most computer games. McClay says that's intentional. Too much reality could be counterproductive.

Up in Palo Alto, California at the Veterans Affairs Department's National PTSD Center, Doctor Greg Leskin is testing a similar VR treatment program. His patients are wired with sensors as they relive their experiences, like this one in an Iraqi hospital following a car-bomb attack with children crying and men on gurneys screaming.

(Soundbite of explosion)

(Soundbite of men screaming)

(Soundbite of woman speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of child crying)

Doctor GREGORY LESKIN (National Center for PTSD, Department of Veterans Affairs): We are monitoring the patients' physiological reactions; that is, their heart rate, their breathing, their core body temperature, the skin conductants.

McCHESNEY: So if the body is reacting but the patient isn't talking, the therapist can ask what's going on. Neither the Navy nor the VA would permit us to talk with patients using these software programs. Both emphasize that it's an experiment in early stages but is showing great promise.

John McChesney, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John McChesney
Since 1979 senior correspondent John McChesney has been with NPR, where he has served as national editor (responsible for domestic news) and senior foreign editor. Over the course of his career with NPR, McChesney covered a variety of beats and traveled extensively throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and newscasts.
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