Virtual reality for PTSD treatment is 'just the beginning'

Serving those who serve us, the University of Alberta announced the creation of the Heroes in Mind, Advocacy & Research Consortium (HiMARC), advancing innovative health and wellness research, education and services for military, veterans, public safety personnel and their families.

"HiMARC is comprised of individuals and organizations that want to serve the men and women in uniform who have served us and continue to serve us daily," said Bob Haennel, dean, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the U of A.

HiMARC's founding members include the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, Alberta Health Services' Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, Royal Canadian Legion Alberta - NWT Command, NAIT, Canadian Armed Forces, Department of National Defence, Veteran Affairs Canada and Covenant Health. Together, they have established several partnerships, initiatives and research projects-one of them being the 3MDR, using virtual reality (VR) to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

HiMARC's Motion-Assisted, Multi-Modal Memory Desensitization and Reconsolidation, or 3MDR, research study, the largest of its kind in Canada, will allow patients with PTSD to try VR therapy using the Computer-Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN) system at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

Patients step into the CAREN unit and walk on a treadmill toward the stimulus-sounds and images that may remind them of events that brought on traumatic memories. The therapist is with them through this experience, guiding, directing and asking them a series of questions as the soldier or veteran confronts these memories.

"It was incredible. I don't know how else to describe it. My senses were heightened. I was even sensitive to the clanging sound of the carabiner on my harness," Capt. Anna Harpe said after experiencing the 3MDR system.

Though the social worker for CFB Edmonton does not have PTSD, testing the 3MDR brought back vivid memories of a mission in Afghanistan when she was in the infantry. "I have worked with some clients who have been diagnosed with PTSD, and I have to say, the 3MDR is mind-blowing. My whole body was activated. You just cannot get the same thing through talk therapy in an office," she said.

3MDR combines walking, talking, eye movement and virtual reality. The study will have 40 participants from the Canadian Armed Forces. They will receive the therapy once a week for six weeks.

"By walking towards the fear, there is a shift in the brain," said Suzette Brémault-Phillips, director of HiMARC in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and co-principal investigator for the study in Canada.

The 3MDR system was developed by Col. Eric Vermetten, head of research at the Military Mental Health unit of the Dutch Ministry of Defence in the Netherlands. 3MDR was very effective in the Netherlands and used to treat the rise in PTSD cases there after its mission to Afghanistan. Col. Vermetten traveled to Edmonton to train Brémault-Phillips and her team to use the system here in Canada.

Chief psychiatrist for the Canadian Armed Forces Col. Rakesh Jetly is co-principal investigator of the study. "We need to continue to innovate and add to the effective treatment options offered to those that suffer from illness such as PTSD. 3MDR and related virtual reality approaches are examples of our ongoing commitment to staying on the leading edge," he said. Col. Jetly is looking forward to seeing more Canadian soldiers experience the VR therapy.

"We are so grateful for the support of our partners-the Royal Canadian Legion AB-NWT Command, Canadian Armed Forces and the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation; I look forward to continuing to grow this collaboration together," said Bremault-Phillips. "There are more HiMARC research initiatives this year and we want to continue to bring research to life."

Capt. Harpe agreed. "HiMARC is creating hope and I am so grateful for this group. I really believe this is just the beginning."