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Treating Veterans with PTSD Through Virtual Reality

PTSD Researchers Studying Olfactory Stimulation to Help Veterans

Most war veterans are aware that reexperiencing the sights and sounds of combat can trigger the emotional and physical reactions of the actual experience.  But many do not realize that odors can be just as strong a cue, leaving them alarmed and confused about their panic, racing heart, and sweaty palms in reaction, to, say, the smell of burning rubber. Researchers in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina’s (MUSC) Institute of Psychiatry (IOP) are among the first in the nation to study how the brain responds to trauma-related odors and the treatments that can lower the distress. 

Bernadette M. Cortese, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at MUSC’s Institute of Psychiatry, is the principal investigator of the five-year, $800,000 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.  Its goal is to examine how the brain responds to trauma-related odors vs. non-trauma-related odors, so that the benefit of using olfactory stimuli during treatment can be determined.  “Up to this point, odors have not been widely used in exposure treatment,” explains Dr. Cortese.  “Treatment was based on sights and sounds.”

The investigators have used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in nearly 40 veterans of the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as active duty service members, to examine how their brains respond to trauma-related odors (such as burned rubber and gunfire chemicals) and non-trauma related odors.  The images have documented a different response in key brain regions that are associated with anxiety in general and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in particular.  “We’re seeing significant differences between combat veterans who meet the criteria for PTSD and those who don’t,” says Dr. Cortese. 

According to Thomas W. Uhde, M.D., Professor and Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at MUSC, there are a lot of unproven claims and urban myths about the use of odors in enhancing human performance. The work of Dr. Cortese, therefore, is particularly important because she employs well-controlled, laboratory-based methods to study the olfactory system. Scientists and patients alike will ultimately be able to know which odor function tests and odor-augmented therapies are truly beneficial in the diagnosis and management of complex brain disorders.

In addition to studying trauma-related olfactory cues to enhance the effectiveness of exposure therapy for the treatment of PTSD, other collaborators and independent investigators in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences are actively engaged in the development of new or improved treatments for PTSD in veterans.  These investigators include Ronald E. Acierno, PhD; Sudie E. Back, PhD; Daniel F. Gros, PhD; Anouk L. Grubaugh, PhD; Mark B. Hamner M.D.; Bernadette P. Marriott, PhD; Kenneth J. Ruggiero, PhD; Peter W. Tuerk, PhD; and Thomas W. Uhde, M.D.