Rick Robinson

Jun 5th 2017

New PTSD Research Aims at Prevention


The deadliest killer of American soldiers on the modern battlefield is not enemy artillery or sniper fire, or even improvised explosive devices (IEDs) such as roadside bombs.

Instead, the deadliest killer is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — the overwhelming effect that sudden, shocking events combined with endless uncertainty can have on the human mind. In recent and ongoing wars, more U.S. service members have lost their lives to suicide than in combat.

PTSD research has thus become a major focus of investigation by the defense and health communities. Recently, here at Now we looked at the role that technologies such as virtual reality (VR) are playing in therapies that help returning veterans overcome the effects of PTSD.

From Recovery to Prevention

But PTSD research is also taking the challenge to its next level, seeking to harness virtual reality not only to aid recovery from PTSD, but to prevent it from arising in the first place. This research effort starts from a reality of the battlefield that is known from ancient times: Training makes a profound difference.

As Matthieu Aikins of Popular Science writes about seasoned troops operating in Afghanistan, they “had done this so many times during training that they were operating from muscle memory. The surge in stress sharpened their attention, heightened their performance.”

Preparing soldiers for the unexpected is a familiar role of military training. But research into using VR to help soldiers deal with horrific past experiences also pointed to the possibility that it could help prepare them for such experiences beforehand.

Training for Trauma

Albert “Skip” Rizzo of USC has played a leading role in these efforts, through a program known as STRIVE, which stands for Stress Resilience In Virtual Environments. As Roxanne Palmer writes in International Business Times, STRIVE is a “video game” that exposes its players to experiences that are left out of typical arcade games:

Thus, in the STRIVE environment, “a soldier becomes virtually immersed in missions that will force him or her to confront emotionally challenging experiences: the deaths or injuries of civilian children, the deaths of fellow soldiers and handling human remains.”

To maximize the immersive effect, PTSD research is drawing on technology tools such as Northrop Grumman’s Virtual Immersive Portable Environment (VIPE) Holodeck. In its broader training role, as Allen McDuffie writes in Wired, VIPE provides the fully immersive environment that effective training requires.

Says Brig. Gen. Michael Lundy, “for us to be able to execute realistic training — good training — we have to be able to bring that operational environment” into a virtual reality world. This remains true even when that training involves learning to cope with the worst horrors of combat.

Operating in Multiple Dimensions

Working with virtual-reality tools through VIPE and STRIVE represents only one dimension of the ongoing battle against PTSD and its effects on service members. The tools of the information and intelligence battlefield, such as Big Data analytics, have also been enlisted to fight PTSD.

For example, as Patricia Kime reports at Military Times, researchers at Northrop Grumman teamed up with the Defense Personnel and Security Research Center and the University of Utah National Center for Veterans Studies to investigate “suicide cues” — warning flags of potential suicide efforts — that can appear in social media posts.

While the immediate focus of these efforts is safeguarding service members and veterans against the effects of battlefield PTSD, they will also help first responders, such as police, firefighters and paramedics, who are at risk from sudden exposure to horrific experiences. Ultimately these tools will help us to understand and protect against traumatic effects of stress that can arise in all walks of life.