If an Omaha study goes well, a U.S. war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder might soon be able to get help by logging onto his home computer.
The new therapy, known by the acronym ABMT, is gaining scientific momentum in Israel and the United States as a potentially low-stress and low-cost way to effectively treat patients for anxiety.
Now the treatment is getting its first military-specific U.S. tryout in Omaha, where Creighton University and University of Nebraska Medical Center researchers — backed by a local nonprofit — will collaborate on a study to test its effectiveness on PTSD-diagnosed veterans of the Iraq and Afghan Wars.
If the PTSD-affected vets show progress — and proponents of the new treatment say they should — then the next step is getting the treatment onto the laptops and smartphones of war veterans in Nebraska and elsewhere in the country who could use it.
"It's intriguing, this opportunity to turn this treatment into a product that would be much more widely available to people" than other forms of therapy, said Scott Anderson, the founder of At Ease USA, which will partly fund the clinical trial. "This might be a way to help them. And we could really, really use that."
At Ease, a Bellevue-based nonprofit program that focuses on post-traumatic stress, has had documented success using traditional talk therapy to treat veterans and family members diagnosed with the disorder.
But the program and others like it, including the VA hospital, which treats most returning war veterans, often can't reach all the 300,000 Iraq and Afghan War veterans estimated by the Rand Corp. to be suffering from PTSD or major depression, say Anderson and Dr. Amy Badura Brack, the Creighton psychology professor who will lead the clinical trial.
Sometimes a returning veteran worries that seeking help from the VA will be seen as a sign of weakness by superior officers or fellow troops, even though the Department of Defense has worked to change that perception in recent years. Top military commanders, for example, have been encouraged to talk about their struggles with PTSD.
And sometimes a veteran can't seek help simply because he can't bring himself to leave the house.
The new therapy might erase those barriers to treatment, Badura Brack says.
ABMT treatment is done on a computer, meaning that eventually it could be done anonymously in the home, the Creighton researcher said.
The treatment itself seems less invasive than talk therapy, which often compels the veteran to relive painful past experiences on the path to healing, she said.
ABMT, or attention bias modification treatment, focuses instead on the patient's reaction to everyday situations, essentially trying to retrain the brain to see these situations as mundane instead of dangerous.
The treatment, developed in Israel, has effectively treated patients with general anxiety in that country and shown promise in two U.S.-based studies focused on anxiety. A PTSD-specific trial conducted by Israeli researcher Dr. Yair Bar-Haim, who developed the therapy, is in its early stages.
"It works much more on hyper-arousal symptoms, about the (patient) seeing danger that isn't there in the civilian world," said Badura Brack, who has studied PTSD on and off for two decades and worked at four different VA hospitals. "Those are the symptoms that veterans are most likely to complain of ... so it's targeting that directly."
During the clinical trial, at least 60 Omaha-area Afghan and Iraq War vets will also be hooked up to cutting-edge UNMC technology that will allow researchers to view the veterans' brain activity in real time as they undergo the therapy.
UNMC and Creighton are expected to publish a report on what they learned about the brain and PTSD. Creighton's Badura Brack expects to publish her own research on whether the new therapy works for vets suffering from PTSD.
This work isn't cheap: A $50,000 grant from the Robert B. Daugherty Charitable Foundation is funding part of the research, while At Ease is footing the other half.
But it's important, proponents say. They hope ABMT therapy will soon be used alongside traditional talk therapy and other techniques to help soldiers struggling after returning from war zones.
"This may not be a silver bullet," Anderson said. "But if we can get eventually some folks help who currently aren't getting help, that would be absolutely terrific."
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