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Richard Lamb in a Humvee after all major combat had taken place. Lamb's unit performed peacekeeping work, post-combat policing and assisted the local population in Bosnia.

Published July 24, 2018

Improving lives through virtual reality

Using VR to treat PTSD and anxiety disorder

Before Richard Lamb was a teacher, he was a soldier. In addition to spending eight months in Bosnia, Lamb served in Afghanistan for over a year, beginning September 22, 2001.

After his final assignment in 2006, Lamb left the military to focus on a career in teaching. He is now associate professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction and director of the multidisciplinary Neurocognition Science Laboratory, home of UB’s virtual reality activity, in the Graduate School of Education.

While researching how virtual reality (VR) could be used in play therapy to help children cope with anxiety disorder, 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 (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.”

In order to better understand how VR might benefit people living with PTSD — including veterans and individuals with long-lasting trauma — Lamb is completing a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling.

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.

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 remember walking through the medical tents in Afghanistan and seeing soldiers there who were severely injured, before they were transported back to Germany,” he says. “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?”

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