The U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs estimates that between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder during any given year. As veterans return home, new research is helping design innovative treatments for them.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry explores an alternative PTSD treatment, delivered via a computer screen. While it's not a new idea to tackle PTSD using computer tasks and even video games, this study tests the effects of a method called "attention control therapy," in which a computer task helps the user shift their focus away from a scary image to an assignment.
PTSD, characterized by symptoms such as intense anxiety and hyper vigilance, operates as a miscalculation of attention. Under normal conditions, humans are able to quickly assess a situation, figure out what’s dangerous and act accordingly; but experiencing a traumatic event can disrupt this system, causing a person to interpret a slightly threatening situation as extremely threatening.
The attention control training used in this new study helped neutralize extreme responses, by forcing test subjects to redirect their attention to completing a task, even though they’d just seen something threatening.
Led by Yair Bar-Haim at Tel Aviv University, a team of researchers asked former members of the U.S. and Israeli military who suffered from PTSD to look at a series of negative and neutral images and then complete a simple task, like counting the number of dots on a screen or describing whether an arrow was pointing right or left. The images shown varied: Israeli veterans were shown words -- some with negative meanings, like “death,” juxtaposed with words that looked and sounded similar but had a neutral meaning, like “dates" -- while the American veterans were shown faces, contorted into an hostile glare or posed in a neutral expression.
American participants were shown photos of an angry face and a neutral face for half a second, then they were shown an arrow symbol and had to indicate whether it was pointing left or right.
The theory is that, by completing the task repeatedly, the differences between the scary image and the neutral image diminish. Whether completing the program with faces or words, the participants who underwent the treatment showed significantly diminished PTSD symptoms after completing the therapy. According to Bar-Haim, this result suggests that the researchers are onto “a deeper mechanism” about the way PTSD functions.
Currently, Bar-Haim is exploring how to use his computer-based therapy to allow more people to have access to treatment. For example, many of the U.S. veterans in his study lived in far-flung regions of Nebraska, some traveling as much as seven hours each way to reach the lab. In these cases “it makes it very difficult for them to obtain treatment,” Bar-Haim said, which is why his team is looking into placing the program online.
But easier access doesn’t necessarily mean open access, per Bar-Haim. “I wouldn’t want to see it in the App Store,” he said. “I would want to see it prescribed by a professional.”
While Bar-Haim is working on a digital treatment to help sufferers receive care, other researchers have been experimenting with ways that computers and gaming might help in their own right.
Some doctors have used certain video games in other PTSD therapy programs. For example, first-person shooter games -- the kind of action-packed military role-playing popularized by "Counter Strike" and "Call of Duty" -- provide an amped-up version of exposure therapy, a regimen where PTSD sufferers talk through a triggering experience, eventually diminishing the memory’s effect.