It is research that holds promise to change the way virtual reality environments are designed to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
And that research by Wright State University Ph.D. engineering student Cassandra Clouse received some high-profile attention at the Department of Defense’s premier scientific meeting.
Clouse was one of 300 out of more than 2,000 researchers selected to present at the Military Health System Research Symposium in Kissimmee, Florida, in August.
“It was an honor just to be able to present,” said Clouse. “I also attended other presentations and learned a lot about what is going on in military health.”
The use of virtual reality to help people with PTSD is a relatively new field.
“Usually a psychologist walks someone with PTSD through the trauma they went through as part of exposure therapy,” said Clouse. “With virtual reality, you can actually put them back in a similar place.”
Clouse’s research was not about having people with PTSD relive their traumas. Rather it was about putting them in a virtual environment with certain stimuli in order to measure their responses. Then they can learn to cope with what triggers heightened responses.
With a $10,000 grant from the Veterans Administration, a local company created a virtual reality design of the first floor of Wright State’s Student Success Center.
A total of 38 people — some of whom had been diagnosed with PTSD — took part in Clouse’s study. The research participants would sit in a chair that swivels, then strap on virtual reality goggles and physiological sensors.
Suddenly they were in a different world.
They followed an arrow and moved down the hallway of the Student Success Center, entering rooms with different stimuli. They floated into a crowded auditorium, passing students and then asked the students to quiet down.
They completed certain tasks, such as finding a copy of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” on one of the walls. There was an abandoned backpack to walk past, something that can trigger anxiety among military veterans who have served in war zones.
As her research participants navigated the virtual Student Success Center, Clouse monitored their vital signs, specifically heart rate, heart rate variability and respiration rate. She also recorded their levels of discomfort on a scale of 0 to 100 from verbal responses.
Afterward, she analyzed the data to determine what stimuli triggered the greatest discomfort or anxiety.
“You want them to be able to cope with that trigger,” she said. “I think people who suffer from PTSD are interested in this kind of system.”
Clouse said people with PTSD also need to be able to talk about what caused their trauma, but are often reluctant.
“However, if you put them in an environment like this and you start asking them questions, a lot of times they just start telling you their story,” she said. “It’s therapeutic for them.”
In 2018, the University of Central Florida’s RESTORES clinic, which uses virtual environments to help people with PTSD, received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Army to establish programs at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Georgia, the Naval Medical Hospital Portsmouth in Virginia and the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
“There is definitely interest in this,” said Clouse, who works as the assistant to the chief engineer of the 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Air Force Research Laboratory.
Clouse grew up in Archer City, Texas, near Wichita Falls and Sheppard Air Force Base. After graduating from Archer City High School in 1993, she went to the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. Clouse was attracted by West Point’s emphasis on the whole person — someone who does well both academically and athletically — and its honor code.
“I thought that would be where I would fit in,” she said.
Clouse, who was one of 90 women in her class of 900, found West Point challenging.
“It was a culture shock when you got there,” she said.
She liked the regimentation, the strict scheduling and the faculty.
“The professors were all very caring,” she said.
Clouse graduated in 1997 with a degree in electrical engineering.
“I love technology,” she said. “And I really liked particle accelerators at the time.”
She went to officer training in Maryland for Ordnance Corps and then to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, before going into the Army National Guard and working as an electrical engineer in Nashville.
Her attraction to human factors engineering led her to discover the distance program offered by Wright State, and she earned her master’s degree online in 2004.
Human factors is applying physical and psychological characteristics to the design of devices and systems for human use. It includes cognitive functions such as attention, detection, perception, memory, judgment, reasoning and decision-making.
In 2006, Clouse landed a job in Beavercreek at SRA International, working on human factors engineering for the Army’s Nett Warrior project. The following year she began working at Wright State on her Ph.D. in engineering with a focus on human factors.
Clouse’s dissertation is titled “Immersive Rehearsal In a Simulated Environment” (IRISE). Her adviser is Subhashini Ganapathy, associate professor of biomedical, industrial and human factors engineering. Others working on the project include DeAnne French, 711th Human Performance Wing Analysis Division, and Matthew Ewer, of Aptima Inc., in Fairborn.
Clouse said that if she had the funding, she would create a virtual reality system of the entire Wright State campus to help students with disabilities or those who have anxiety or PTSD.
“They could come in — or even in the comfort of their own home or with a therapist — and practice getting around campus with different stimuli in the environment,” she said. “They would be prepared before they even got to class.”
Clouse said she herself had navigated through the virtual Student Success Center dozens of times before actually going there.
“It was the most empowering feeling just to know where everything was in the building without setting foot in it previously,” she said.