Bringing the smells of war home, via virtual reality

On an Orlando college campus, veterans and active duty soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder inhale the unmistakable smell of burning tires, rotting garbage and Middle Eastern spices as part of a virtual reality treatment for the psychological wounds of war.

Participants sit in a chair wearing a head-mounted display and video goggles connected to a computer system and a scent machine that puffs out the odors, recreating their memories of war, from insurgent ambushes and roadside bombs to witnessing comrades die.

From the outside, it looks like the soldiers are playing a video game, but therapists hope that on the inside, they are healing.

The Trauma Management Therapy program, now available to South Florida active duty soldiers and veterans with PTSD who volunteer, is part of a clinical study at the University of Central Florida that uses sights, sounds and smell to help ease the episodes of anxiety, sleeplessness and nightmares. With new waves of soldiers returning as American forces withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, researchers are hoping the combination of traditional therapy and virtual-reality simulation — with an emphasis on smell — to help decrease post-traumatic symptoms.

“The point is not to make people comfortable with these events, but to decrease the emotion that has gone along with them so someone stops being afraid to drive under an overpass because it triggers a reaction related to a bridge attack they lived through in Iraq,” said Deborah Beidel, director of the UCF Anxiety Disorders Clinic. “Think of it this way: If you were afraid of dogs, how do you get past that fear? You have to be around a dog. You have to confront the fear.”

Between 11 percent and 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have PTSD and more than 200,000 veterans have been treated for the disorder at facilities run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, statistics that are driving the military to explore alternate treatments including acupuncture, yoga and meditation. The Military Operational Medicine Research Program has invested about $297 million in active research projects addressing PTSD, from prevention to treatment.

Read the full story from the Miami Herald here.

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