Paraplegics Learn To Walk Again With Help From Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is in the press for Games, Demos, and VR movies. However, there are many more potential applications for VR. The nonprofit group The Walk Again Project (WAP) have successfully applied VR to help Paraplegics regain some level of control.

According to a study published Aug. 11 in Scientific Reports, all eight patients who participated in the study have already gained some motor control using the VR treatment.

“When we looked 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. Miguel Nicolelis, the lead researcher from Duke University in North Carolina,

In the study, paraplegic patients were placed in a VR environment wearing an Oculus Rift, where they were given tasks to learn to use brain activity to control an avatar version of themselves and make it walk around a soccer field. They wore a long sleeve shirt which would provide haptic feedback to the patients’ forearms, stimulating the sensation of touching the ground. The arms were treated as phantom limbs, substituting for the legs, fooling the brain into feeling like the patient was walking.

With practice, the brain relearned the concept of walking. Each patient then moved to a custom-designed exoskeleton (Think Terminator). The exoskeleton uses a head cap with electrical nodes, which pick up signals and relays them to a computer in the exoskeleton’s backpack. The patient thinks about walking, and the computer activates the exoskeleton to complete the movement.

By walking in the exoskeleton an hour a day. Researchers discovered something very amazing. Each patient was able to activate their remaining nerves to send signals back to the brain, allowing them to regain some voluntary movement and sensitivity.

Each patient had a different recovery period, but all were able to feel sensation again in the pelvic region and lower limbs, and also learned to control some of their muscles including b
ladder and bowel function for the first time in many years.

Just think how that must feel to regain at least some control after years of no control?

About the Author Michelle Figueras

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