Medical researchers experiment with VR technology to treat pain and fear

Global Business

Virtual reality can take us to the most amazing places, out of this world. It can also take us to the horrors of war and back and that’s what’s happening at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Its ‘Bravemind’ program is testing a method of using virtual reality to help war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.)

CGTN’s Phil Lavelle reports on the newest technology.

They’re each put into a virtual world where they methodically describe the place that they endured what is likely to be the worst moment of their life. No detail is ignored – the trash at the side of the road, the music in the distance, the smell of burning rubber. All are recreated, using state of the art scent vaporizers and seats which vibrate and mimic the feel of a tank or a Humvee.

“It has to be real enough to activate anxiety, without pushing somebody over the edge,” Skip Rizzo, who leads the trial explained.

“We went to help them take that feeling and talk about it. And instead of when they see something that reminds them of the trauma, they run the other way, they avoid it, that just perpetrated continued avoidance. We’re trying to help people overcome the avoidance. Both physically, emotionally and cognitively.”

Participants are even given homework – they take portable versions of the VR headset away with them. They can relive their experience over and over again, trying to make sense of it, but always able to extract themselves if it ever gets too much.

Even though it’s an experiment, it’s being watched very closely. There’s a lot about VR that’s got the medical world excited.

A few miles away at Cedars-Sinai hospital, they’re even using VR as a kind of anesthetic. Around 500 patients have been testing VR headsets to help them with chronic pain. Jaime Monolo is one of them. He’s a law student, hospitalized with cancer. Right now, he has a tumor pushing against his spine, and the pain is unbearable at times. But when it gets too much, he reaches for the portable VR headset next to his bed and starts playing a game. It works for him:

“I didn’t think it was gonna help that much, but it helps distract me from the pain and it’s pretty fun,” he tells CGTN. If you focus enough on trying to score and go through levels, you’re focused on the game rather than the pain. Sometimes you still feel the pain, but you kinda brush it off by concentrating on the game and staying focused.”

What’s really interesting here is that doctors know this works. But they can’t explain how it works.

Brennan Spiegel is the member of staff here leading the trial. He knows that pain is reduced – on average – by about 25 percent. Here’s his theory on why:

“The simplest theory is that it’s just distraction?It’s like shining a bright light right into the brain and almost overwhelming it with signals so it runs interference with the brain. Because the brain is so immersed in the experience, it’s unable to simultaneously process the pain signals coming from the body.”

You may expect this equipment to be uber-expensive, but it is actually comprised of components that you can buy from electronics stores at a relatively affordable price. The trial is using Samsung cellphones which have, for the last few years, been VR ready. Paired with a Samsung VR headset (which costs about $100), what is marketed as a consumer device is now turning into a key medical tool.

The company working with Samsung and the hospital is call AppliedVR, based in Los Angeles. Its boss is Matthew Stoudt. In a terrifying example of how the brain can be hijacked, he takes me about 150 meters into the air up a virtual ledge along the side of a building. As the safety rail plunges to the ground, I’m left hovering precariously in the wind. As if that’s not bad enough, I’m then encouraged to step off the edge. I know it’s not real – it doesn’t look lifelike and is obviously a computer simulation, so I’m not going to plunge to my death – and yet, I just can’t do it.

Matthew explains why they don’t make it fully realistic: “The closer you get to reality, the more the person starts to notice the difference between reality and the virtual world and it breaks that cognitive load. So you’ve actually got to be more animated on that side, or spot on and use actual video.”

One of the other issues that is raised about new strides forward in the medical world is the regulation. Some investors describe that as a roadblock. Though advocates of VR in health tech point out that it is much easier than drugs, because there is a simple fall-back: if it makes you feel nauseous, you just take it off.

But based on this trial, more and more patients are putting it on. And it’s helping them through the greatest traumas of their lives.