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Researchers at UCF have pioneered a new therapy regimen to combat the growing incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among war veterans.

As part of a $5.1 million Department of Defense grant, researchers under Dr. Deborah Beidel at the UCF RESTORES clinic have been experimenting with the application of virtual reality techniques as part of a patient's therapy regimen.

The treatment, a subset of trauma-management therapy known as exposure therapy, utilizes a unique combination of virtual reality software, mechanical stimulation and olfactory stimulation to recreate a patient's traumatic experiences. By prolonged exposure to this virtually simulated trauma, a patient is gradually desensitized to the effects and distress the trauma causes during their day-to-day life.

"We have patients come to us with very severe symptoms of PTSD," said Dr. Sandra Neer, research assistant professor and project coordinator for the trauma-management therapy program. "They're almost unable to function. By the end of the therapy, their CAP scores [a measure of PTSD symptom severity] have been almost halved."

Compared to traditional regimens of treatment that can take months to finish, this new form of virtual reality exposure therapy requires only three weeks — 29 sessions — to complete. Retention rates are high compared to traditional treatment methodologies, with only one patient out of 80 dropping out of the program, compared to a 47 percent dropout rate for more conventional treatments.

"Keeping the dropout rate under 40 percent is a national problem," Neer said. "It's hard to go through therapy. Veterans have usually spent years avoiding whatever they're dealing with, and to come here and be exposed to treatment is hard. By coming here and getting everything done at once, our patients get better faster."

In 2003, 190,257 veterans, or 4.3 percent, of all Veteran Administration patients were receiving treatment for PTSD; by 2012, that number increased to 502,546, or 9.2 percent, of all patients, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine on PTSD among veterans and military members. A similar report published by the National Institutes of Mental Health estimates that a total of 5.2 million Americans have PTSD. Costs associated with the treatment of PTSD, among veterans alone, have increased from $29 million to nearly $300 million in 2004, and are projected to rise even more in coming years.

"Although these numbers are likely to underestimate the incidence and prevalence of PTSD, they demonstrate that action is needed to respond to this growing problem," according to the study. "Demands for post traumatic stress disorder services among service members and veterans are at unprecedented levels and are climbing."

The researchers at UCF trauma-management clinic expressed hope that their therapy would help lead the way for a new course of treatment to help soothe the rising tide of veterans and civilians alike debilitated by PTSD.

"What we tend to see is that guys get back [from deployment], they don't go into treatment, they get out of the Army and they're stranded; they have no access to help," said Benson Munyan, a doctoral candidate and clinical research assistant. "There's no incentive once they leave the service to get treatment. We're trying to fix that."

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Bernard Wilchusky is Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow Follow him on Twitter at @facilesweater or email him at BernardW@CentralFloridaFuture.com.

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