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An Orlando clinic is using a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop virtual reality (VR) technology for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans and emergency services workers.
The University of Central Florida's RESTORES clinic has been testing VR therapy, which uses the tech to expose veterans to the scenes and sounds of warzones, since 2010.
After the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, RESTORES expanded its services to treat first response personnel and mass shooting survivors suffering with PTSD. Since the clinic opened, it has treated 450 veterans and first responders.
"This is cutting-edge technology for people in the fire service, police officers and so on. They suffer with PTSD as much as veterans, but there's no VR technology available for first responders right now," Deborah Beidel, founder and director of the clinic, told CNBC over the phone this month.
The PTSD treatment is a three-week program that combines VR with group therapy sessions. VR sessions expose patients to videos and scenes that trigger their trauma, such as warzones, which are coupled with the sounds and smells of gunfire and smoke. Exposure to these sensations is intended to reduce the stress associated with the patients' memories of them.
In October, the Department of Defense donated $3 million to the clinic to help it continue developing the treatment. RESTORES plans to invest the funds into new tech, with a view to roll the system out commercially by 2021. Developing software in-house will allow clinicians to create VR scenes for more non-military patients.
Trials have shown that 66 percent of combat veterans and 73 percent of first responders no longer met the clinical definition of PTSD after finishing the treatment.
"They may still have a nightmare or feel uncomfortable when (confronted with memories), but it doesn't dominate their life anymore," Beidel told CNBC. "The memories don't ever go away completely but we are getting them their lives back."
Precision is key to ensuring the VR treatment works, according to Beidel. She explained that one patient, a marine, could not benefit from the tech's full potential because the uniforms featured in the scenes were not the ones he associated with his personal experiences.
"Right now, our objective is to develop VR that will work in any setting — we're talking to all kinds of clinicians and we're going to produce a prototype using different scenes," she told CNBC, adding that the new tool being developed will allow clinics to redesign features in the VR scenes so they fit with individual patients' experiences.
"We want to make this technology easily accessible to clinicians whether they're in London, Kuala Lumpur, China – wherever they are we want them to have the most effective product," Beidel added. "So many people are touched by trauma. We want to give people their lives back and really believe that VR is something that can help."
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of University of Central Florida.