Monday, August 29, 2016

Learning How to Walk Again Thanks to Virtual Reality

Awhile ago, if you had asked any doctor or physician if there was hope for paraplegics in terms of recovery, they would have responded with little to no hope.  All that could be done for them was to comfort them and provide them with another means of transportation.  Fast forward to today, there may be a new hope.  A new way in which paraplegics may be able to walk again.  And it comes in the form of virtual reality.

Yeah, the same thing people use to play video games.

In essence, paraplegics have little to no brain function when it comes to motor skills forMiguel Nicolelis, the lead researcher from Duke University in North Carolina.  “It’s almost like the brain had erased the concept of moving by walking.”  So when patients were asked to imagine walking, the brain showed no sign of activity for that area.  By becoming paraplegic, patients' brains would literally "forget" how to walk because they could no longer control it.
walking, running, or basic movement of the lower limbs.  “When we look at the brains of these patients when they got to us, we couldn’t detect any signal when we asked them to imagine walking again. There was no modulation of brain activity,” Dr.

With virtual reality, everything may change.  Eight patients with chronic spinal cord injuries (SCIs) were used in a study in order to test brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) in terms of developing better therapies for paraplegics.  In this virtual reality, each patient was asked to navigate a virtual reality game using an Oculus Rift.  The game consisted of an avatar creation and a soccer field, in which the patients were asked to take their avatar and walk around on the soccer field.  In addition, a specially designed shirt was used in correlation with this study that monitored the patient and provided feedback onto the patients forearms that simulated walking on the ground.  This was used for a period of time, allowing the patients to get reacquainted with walking in a different form that their brain could understand.  After completing the first part, each patient was moved to an exoskeleton with a cap that could detect brain activity.  Simply put, the patient would have to think about walking and the cap would detect it.

Now the results were not immediate.  Each patient had a different recovery time in the 12 months of testing.  However, after an hour of using the exoskeleton every day, each patient regained some motor skills with walking.  More incredibly, each patient was able to recreate voluntary movement and sensation in their legs, as well as control bowel movements for the first time in years.

Granted, there are other methods for helping paraplegics now, including stem cell therapies and surgeries.  But this is the least intrusive method of recovery to date with incredible results.  "Overall, the results obtained in our study suggest that BMI applications should be upgraded from merely a new type of assistive technology to help patients regain mobility, through the use of brain-controlled prosthetic devices, to a potentially new neurorehabilitation therapy, capable of inducing partial recovery of key neurological functions," said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis.  "Such a clinical potential was not anticipated by original BMI studies. Therefore, the present findings raise the relevance of BMI-based paradigms, regarding their impact on SCI patient rehabilitation. In this context, it would be very interesting to repeat the present study using a population of patients who suffered a SCI just a few months prior to the initiation of BMI training. We intend to pursue this line of inquiry next. Based on our findings, we anticipate that this population may exhibit even better levels of partial neurological recovery through the employment of our BMI protocol."  This breakthrough could provide paraplegics with a greater hope for recovery and a cheaper alternative to other methods of recovery.  Who knew that by playing a VR game/simulation could lead to paraplegics recovering from their injuries?

For more information, here is the story that was written on the research paper:

http://qz.com/757516/paraplegics-are-learning-to-walk-again-with-virtual-reality/

In addition, here is the scientific paper that was published in the Nature magazine:

http://www.nature.com/articles/srep30383