Virtual reality therapy developed at University of Alberta helping veterans overcome PTSD

When purchasing a poppy, donors know it’s in support of Canada’s veterans but it’s not always clear how.

A long-time partnership between the University of Alberta and the Royal Canadian Legion is a direct result of the yearly fundraiser.

Since its inception in 2018, Heroes in Mind, Advocacy & Research Consortium, or HiMARC, has initiated several projects supporting veterans, public safety personnel and their families, but it’s seeing great strides with a PTSD therapy called Motion-Assisted, Multi-Modal Memory Desensitization and Reconsolidation, or 3MDR.

The fully immersive treatment which has produced some strong results, said Dr. Chelsea Jones, HiMARC co-founder.

“This is a group that has what we refer to as treatment-resistant PTSD,” Jones said. “They are not responding as well to those traditional psychotherapeutic methods and potentially not with medication, either.

“So this is something novel and different that we can offer them to help with some of that complex trauma.”

During the session, the patient walks on a treadmill while images that trigger their PTSD, which they have chosen themselves, are displayed in front of them. (Submitted by HiMARC)

The therapy combines walking, talking and eye movement with virtual reality.

During the session, the patient walks on a treadmill while images that trigger their PTSD, which they have chosen themselves, are displayed in front of them.

With the help of a therapist they walk toward their fears, learning to face and overcome them.

“They’re walking into their traumatic memories and they can’t retreat or move backwards,” Jones said. “We think that’s a significant reason as to why 3MDR works.”

So far 19 veterans have taken part in the project.

The impact of the treatment is immediately clear, said Tammy Wheeler, executive director for the Royal Canadian Legion’s Alberta-NWT Command.

“They could communicate better,” Wheeler said. “They were grasping their feelings. They were understanding what was going on with them.

“And if we could see that from the outside looking in, you know, you think about that from a family’s perspective.”

Now, funding from the Calgary legion’s Poppy campaign is allowing the team to look at using mobile units to offer the therapy to veterans in rural areas.

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