A tantalizing therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder that is supposed to work in five or fewer sessions is growing in Minnesota, though it remains controversial and based on limited clinical research.

Accelerated resolution therapy, or ART, challenges patients to think about traumatic experiences while conducting eye movement exercises that distract them and detach negative emotions from their memories. An ART trade group has hosted one training in Minnesota this year and has two more scheduled.

"It allows reprocessing of the memory quicker than anything else I've seen," said Jim Engen, a Maplewood therapist who completed the training.

PTSD causes people to relive the emotions of traumatic events and is prevalent among soldiers and others in hazardous professions. Treatment traditionally involves talk therapy and exposure activities over weeks and months to recreate anxiety-causing situations so patients confront them.

ART's faster approach has raised interest. The U.S. Department of Defense funded early research, hopeful that ART would be more attractive to soldiers hiding symptoms and hasten PTSD treatment so that soldiers could return to duty. It also could be helpful in homeless patients who struggle to stick with prolonged therapy.

Existing cognitive therapies work for 70 percent of soldiers who complete them, but they are only 40 percent effective when including those who drop out, said Dr. Charles Hoge, a retired colonel who headed up PTSD research at what was then Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "We're always looking ... for more efficient treatment."

Critics have dismissed ART as pseudoscience or lacking research results. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has not approved the practice, and it is not provided at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center.

Most ART research has been performed by epidemiologist Kevin Kip at the University of South Florida.

Why the eye movements help is unclear, but they appear to preoccupy the brain in a way that splits traumatic memories from harmful emotions, he said. "You're not just trying to tinker around the edge or desensitize [memories] a little. You're trying to go to the source of how the memories are stored and alter that. ... Keep the facts, lose the pain."

Comparative research is underway. Doctors at the University of Cincinnati are comparing the effectiveness of ART vs. traditional cognitive behavioral therapy vs. no treatment initially.

Engen said the therapy was tested on him during training, and he found himself less upset about a painful memory.

"It doesn't really bring you back into the memory," he said. "It doesn't retraumatize you."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744