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Lamb aims to use virtual reality to treat PTSD

richard lamb in the lab holding virtual reality goggles.

Graduate School of Education faculty member Richard Lamb is completing a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling in order to apply his work with virtual reality to veterans with PTSD. Photo: Douglas Levere

By MICHAEL ANDREI

Published July 13, 2018

“The men and women I met have done a tremendous amount for those of us here. Now what do we do to help them?”
Richard Lamb, associate professor of learning and instruction
Graduate School of Education

Before Richard Lamb was a teacher, he was a soldier.

Now associate professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction in the Graduate School of Education, Lamb graduated from Canisius College in 1999 with a degree in biochemistry and a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After training and being briefly stationed at Fort Drum, Lamb was assigned to the 431 Infantry Battalion, on rotation to Bosnia.

“I served as a battle captain, assistant operations officer and chemical officer,” says Lamb, who is also director of the multidisciplinary Neurocognition Science Laboratory, home of UB’s virtual-reality activity. “My job was to coordinate all the different units in our battalion as they performed their missions in areas surrounding us.  

“We came in after all the major combat had taken place, but there were people there who didn’t want to give up the fight, so it was our job to put a stop to that, provide security and work with some of the other outside forces that had come in, such as the Russian military,” he says.

“We were doing peacekeeping work, post-combat policing, helping to de-conflict things when that was necessary and assisting the local population — whatever our mission required.”

In addition to spending eight months in Bosnia, Lamb also served in Afghanistan for over a year, beginning September 22, 2001.

“Our unit, 1st Platoon, 42nd Chemical Company, was one of the first ones into that country following Sept. 11,” Lamb says. “We were attached to a special operations unit, and worked with teams from the Navy, Air Force, Marines, Army and other governmental agencies, as well as teams from other countries.”

Lamb says his unit supported and trained with a wide array of Special Forces in Afghanistan, whose missions focused on chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear threats. There was a lot to learn.

“We were working with an explosive ordinance team one day and the first sergeant pulled me aside and said, ‘These guys are some of the best in the world, and I know your team is excited to be working with them. But understand they have a very specific job to do. You — your team — have to look out for you. They have a mission they have to accomplish, so if something happens, your unit needs to be prepared to deal with it on your own.’

“That was an important point and we kept it in mind … myself, especially, as a 23-year-old platoon leader,” Lamb says.

Lamb, in a Hazmat suit, during training for a hazardous materials attack with the Moldovan Army.

Richard Lamb wears a hazmat suit during training with the Moldovan Army for a hazardous materials attack.

Returning from Afghanistan in 2002 — in what was still a post-9/11 environment — Lamb took on an assignment in North Carolina with a team training for a potential detonation of a weapon of mass destruction in the U.S. “I was assigned as a team leader because I was one of the only persons there who had actual experience doing this stuff,” he says.

“Or chemical attacks of some sort … if you remember this was back when there were letters containing anthrax being sent around. So, if you got one of those letters, I was trained as one of the guys in the sealed ‘bubble suits’ who came in as part of the response team to analyze it.”

Lamb’s final assignment — also in North Carolina — was to assess security levels of refineries, nuclear power plants and other potential targets. Following this, he left the military in 2006 to focus on a career in teaching.  

By the time Lamb arrived at UB’s Graduate School of Education in 2016, he was becoming more and more interested in virtual reality.

During his first teaching job at Washington State University, Lamb began doing computational modeling of human cognition, which, he found, tied back to video game play.

“That prompted me to set up a lab there at WSU — a little less sophisticated that what I now have here at UB — to look at what I call the physiological markers of learning and how that integrates the learning process,” says Lamb.  

“It made me realize that, as researchers, we were really just guessing how people are processing or not processing information. Coming as a natural extension of work I had done in gaming, I became interested in how gaming and virtual environments promote learning.”

At UB, as Lamb began to understand and read more, he was asked to write an article on how virtual reality (VR) could be used in play therapy. “So, we looked at children with anxiety disorder and examined how virtual environments can help them cope with their anxiety, and the difficulties associated with that process.”

It became apparent to Lamb and his team that what they were doing also had very ready applications to the effects of human exposure to intense traumatic events, such as post traumatic stress disorder, most often referred to as PTSD.

“My research is now focusing on special populations,” says Lamb. “I have done work with geriatric populations centering on Alzheimer’s and dementia in video game play in virtual environments, looking at how to help affect cognitive decline.”

He says he needed more understanding, however, before turning to how virtual reality might benefit those living with PTSD — including veterans with combat experience, as well as individuals with long-lasting trauma stemming from a life-threatening event, such as a car accident.

“Because I am trained as an educator — with some psychological training in the background — I didn’t have the kind of formalized training I would need to apply this process to something such as PTSD,” says Lamb.

With this in mind, he is completing a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling.

“Taking the VR piece with anxious populations, focused on children, together with the rehabilitation counseling courses — of course, one of the biggest groups using rehabilitation counseling are veterans — it became very apparent that there is a tremendous need for therapeutic applications of VR in treatment for veterans living with PTSD,” he says.

“In my past, I knew a lot of people in the service who had difficulties coming back from extraordinarily stressful or traumatic tours of duty.”

Lamb says part of working through some of the most critical aspects of PTSD is providing an opportunity for individuals to react in that environment and work through what causes reactions, or triggers for reactions, in a slow and controlled way.

“I am not a clinician. I don’t do the therapeutic, in terms of my prescribing the therapy,” he says. “There are others who do that. I help design some of the environments, how to use them and then make recommendations to those that do prescribe.”

It’s an important part of the process, Lamb says, because it is done in conjunction with doctors, nurses and clinicians who are prescribing therapy. Lamb says his team is working with Crosswater Digital Media, a Buffalo-based VR company, to develop scenarios they believe may be effective in treating PTSD.

“At various points, we will present potential scenarios to doctors and clinicians to be viewed and evaluated on whether they think the scenarios will work therapeutically with PTSD patients.”

The team is moving cautiously. “What we don’t want to do is create more difficulty for someone with PTSD who is experiencing one of the VR scenarios,” Lamb says. “We want to make sure the scenarios are right for everything the clinicians will be trying to do with them to treat veterans suffering with PTSD.

“I got to know, personally, some of those individuals and I am very aware of how much they went through. And it affects my view of it tremendously,” he says.

Lamb emphasizes that even though he served in the military, his experience was different than those in front-line combat. “The men and women who saw time in combat, many of them on multiple tours, went through really hard, difficult fighting, and bear the scars from that. My experience was not theirs.

“I have been to the VA, and seen some of the things that happened to people,” he says. “I remember walking through the medical tents in Afghanistan and seeing soldiers there who were severely injured, before they were transported back to Germany.  

“Those kinds of things are all there, in my mind, as I work on this project. And the question becomes: The men and women I met have done a tremendous amount for those of us here. Now what do we do to help them?”