Spiders, dogs, and PTSD: A virtual treatment for phobias and fear from MDedge
October 28, 2021
By Bret S. Stetka, M.D.
At Wayne State University’s Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic (STARC) in Michigan, researchers are developing novel interventions for treating some very ancient phobias hardwired into the human brain. By using augmented reality as means of conducting exposure therapy, STARC researchers – including Shantanu Madaboosi, Rakesh Ramaswamy, and Lana Grasser – and STARC director Arash Javanbakht, MD, have produced compelling evidence that they can free patients of their often debilitating fears of spiders, dogs, and snakes. Yet their work doesn’t stop there, and research into treating anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder among first responders and others with high-stress occupations is ongoing.
Augmenting exposure therapy
How did you begin using artificial intelligence as a way of delivering exposure therapy?
Exposure therapy is a very effective treatment for phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and PTSD. But the problem we had is that, if someone comes to me and says they’re afraid of dogs, snakes, or spiders, I don’t have those in my office. Or, if its social phobia, I can’t create those scenarios. So, despite being such an effective treatment, it’s not utilized as much as it should be.
Several years ago, I saw a TED talk by the CEO of an augmented reality company who happened to be a neuroscientist. I thought the concept was amazing, because it offered a way to overcome those limitations.
Mixed augmented reality allows us to bring all those feared objects to the clinic. I can bring my Labrador to the office for someone who’s afraid of dogs, and they can get the exposure to that one dog. But we know good exposure therapy needs to be generalizable, with as many different breeds of dogs as possible, and is context dependent. If the patient sees a dog in their neighborhood, their fear response may come back. Doing it in a real-life context, and offering as many contexts as possible, makes it more effective.
Augmented reality allows all of these options because you can have as many different types of virtual objects as you want, and the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality is that augmented reality happens in a real-life context. You wear the goggles and you can walk around the environment and track the object, so the context is more realistic.
When did you begin researching augmented reality as a clinical tool?
I became a faculty member here in 2015, right out of my residency training, and I think it was around 2016 or 2017 that we began this work.
I’m very much involved in exposure therapy, utilize it myself, train others, and research how it works and changes the brain. I knew the ins and outs and what would make a better exposure therapy, based on my knowledge of neuroscience.
We spend time thinking about how we can apply these neuroscientific principles in software that can also be easily used by a not very technologically savvy therapist. Because that has been a big barrier when it comes to technology and human use in medicine.
Initially, we had a company create the software for us, but we’ve since brought all the programming inside.
The cool thing about these augmented reality devices is that they have excellent surface mapping. As soon as the person wears the goggles, it automatically maps the surfaces and provides a 3D view of the patient’s environment on the therapist’s computer. Say you’re treating a patient with a fear of spiders. Through drop-down menus, the therapist can choose what type of spider, its color and size, where it should be placed, and the motion. I can choose to move the spider from 6 feet away on the floor to the walls to the ceiling…
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