People in the world of media and video gaming are aware of the virtual reality headset known as Oculus Rift. But what many don’t know is that this same program is being used to teach paraplegics to move their lower limbs again.
The moment that spawned this idea of using virtual reality to teach paraplegics to walk again began in 2014, when an exoskeleton machine was used to allow paraplegics to walk. The patients would be strapped into a robotic exoskeleton that used brain-machine interface to signal to the exoskeleton to walk or kick a leg. One paraplegic patient even used this technology to perform the kickoff of the opening FIFA 2014 World Cup.
The same company behind the robotic exoskeletons, the Walk Again Project, is now using virtual reality to retrain paraplegics’ brains and nerves to move their lower limbs.
Researchers realized that on top of being paralyzed in their lower limbs, their brains had also forgotten how to move. Eight patients suffering from a spinal cord injury for longer than one year took part in a yearlong study using virtual reality and robotic exoskeletons.
Virtual Reality Avatars Tricked Paraplegics’ Brains Into Walking
At the beginning of the study, the eight paraplegic patients wore an Oculus Rift headset and were asked to make a virtual avatar walk across a soccer field. Researchers were able to have the patients do this by putting sleeves on their arms that sent vibrations into their arms every time their avatar moved. This tricked the brain into the feeling of walking.
After patients were able to successfully make their avatars walk with their brain waves, they advanced to a robotic exoskeleton. The paraplegic patients wore caps that monitored their brain waves, which then signaled to the exoskeleton to move when the patients thought about walking.
The patients went through twelve months of this treatment, and used the exoskeletons an hour per day. By the end of the study, all eight patients had at least some muscle control in their lower limbs.
One of the biggest successes was that all eight patients regained some control of their bladder and bowel movements for the first time since they became paraplegic. Another huge success was that half of the eight patients were reclassified as partially paraplegic, since they had regained enough feeling and mobility in their lower legs to meet this classification.
One patient who’d been paralyzed for 13 years actually had the most significant improvement from the virtual reality treatment. After a year of this technological therapy, she was able to move her legs on her own while strapped in a harness.
Stem cells and electronic implants have been used for a while now in helping paraplegics, but researchers behind this brain-machine-interface believe that their treatment is the least invasive and most effective at helping patients to move again. They believe that in the future, the use of this virtual reality, brain signal therapy coupled with stem cell treatments may help paraplegics to fully walk on their own again.