Israeli Army to Introduce Computerized Training to Prevent PTSD

The training sessions change the way the brain processes traumatic events in the battlefield, researchers say.

Soldiers with laptops taking part in the PTSD study.
Ilan Wald

The Israeli army plans to introduce a computerized training program designed to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers.

The system, which was developed by Tel Aviv University in cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces Medical Corps, will be used in advanced training of troops in the army’s Ground Forces Command.

Research conducted with veterans of the 2014 war in Gaza, some of whom had previously undergone training with the system, found that the risk of combat troops developing PTSD in battle declined by 70 percent for soldiers who had been trained with the program compared to those who had not.

Training consists of four, 10-minute sessions over a month. Participants are asked to complete a fairly simple and technical computer task – striking a certain key whenever a certain symbol appears on the computer screen. However, while that task is under way, the subject is also shown various figures on the screen, some threatening and some neutral. According to the researchers, these figures may have angry faces or words might appear such as “wounded” or “explosions,” which are associated with PTSD.

The research group is led by Prof. Yair Bar-Haim and Dr. Ilan Wald of the School of Psychological Sciences and the School of Brain Sciences of Tel Aviv University, in cooperation with the IDF Medical Corps and the IDF’s mental health department, and colleagues in the United States. The results of the project were published Tuesday in the journal Psychological Medicine.

Researchers say the training sessions change the way the brain processes traumatic events in the battlefield and thus has a major impact on the development of PTSD.

“In 2008 we followed large groups of infantry soldiers from basic training through operational service,” Bar-Haim said. “We discovered that soldiers who avoided paying attention to potential threats were at a higher risk to develop PTSD later.”

According to Bar-Haim, the cognitive system in the brain that monitors threats in the environment by paying attention to them is active in a healthy person. “When we walk down the street, for example, we are always paying some attention to potential threats – threatening faces, sharp movements, vehicles approaching us at high speed. But with people suffering from PTSD, this internal ‘radar’ is disproportionate to actual threats,” he said.

In 2012, 800 infantry soldiers underwent training with the program. In the summer of 2014, these soldiers, together with others who had not had the training, spent 50 days fighting in Gaza. Four months after the fighting, Bar-Haim and his team checked how many of the Gaza war veterans had developed PTSD. “In the control group, that is, soldiers who had not received the computer training, 7.8 percent were diagnosed with PTSD. In the group of soldiers who had undergone the computerized training, only 2.6 percent developed PTSD.”

Psychologically, a soldier who does not process threats satisfactorily during combat is at greater risk of developing PTSD symptoms later. Flashbacks and an attempt to avoid anything that recalls the traumatic experience are one of the results of the inability to process the event in real time, Bar-Haim said.

“It’s rare that cognitive-behavioral research becomes effective preventive intervention, and rarer still that effective prevention is so broadly and quickly inculcated,” Bar-Haim said.

“Increasing soldiers’ mental fortitude and reducing the risk of PTSD places the IDF at the forefront of preventive medicine in the field of mental health, Bar-Haim added.

The U.S. Army, which took part in funding the research, is testing it among its soldiers.