Virtual reality can now help veterans - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Virtual reality can now help veterans

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 MONTANA - People are using virtual reality for everything from selling homes to visiting museums. Now software developers in Montana think they have the key to using VR to treat veterans.

Reporter Kaitlin Miller found out how this new software is helping identify a disorder that's often mistaken for PTSD.

Brian Barnes spent three years in the U.S. Army. He worked for a specialized group that trained for combat in extreme climates and terrain. He served overseas in Afghanistan and came back like so many do - with unseen injuries.

"I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD," Barnes said.

Today, he's testing a new product some say may help identify and combat those injuries.

"In December of 2016 there was a test conducted by the VA that out of this group of veterans with PTSD, 81 percent of them also had a undiagnosed and untreated vestibular disorder," said Jason Zentgraf, Health and Human Performance Specialist.

Vestibular disorder is a damage to the inner ear that many veterans get from being exposed to loud noises. Left untreated, it can cause issues with everything from balance to mood.

Zentgraf says the symptoms of vestibular disorder are so similar to those of PTSD that many veterans have it and don't even know it...until now; the virtual reality system is helping diagnose and treat disorder.

Four out of five of the people they originally hooked up to the machine tested positive for vestibular disorder.

"At that time we figured what is vestibular disorder, and we started learning about it and learned about the correlation of PTSD, TBIs, and vestibular disorder," said Zentgraf.

Co-founder of the virtual mind software, Erik Guzik, says this is a huge improvement over current cognitive tests used for people with all kinds of ailments, like concussions, Alzheimer's, even strokes.

Guzik says they often test reaction in patients with these conditions by having them click on a mouse or press buttons on a keyboard.

This is an example of a behavioral test that was originally done using pen and paper. And in this test, you have to match the letters and numbers in a specific order like A-1 and B-2. 

"It's a much more engaging type of environment," Guzik said. "We're capturing the time automatically with the software and we're also capturing mistakes automatically so it's more engaging and accurate."

The developers are among the first to test the software. Now they're working with another group in California to see if VR works to diagnose and treat patients with everything from Alzheimer's to strokes.

And patients like Barnes say going to the medical officer is fun again.

"It was pretty sweet," said Barnes.

So far, they've only tested about 60 people. They are beginning the next phase of testing with about 150 people.