Most people think about virtual reality as being a vessel for gaming, but millions of dollars have gone into finding new ways to utilize the technology in new ways. Though many have re-purposed the tech for use with multimedia experiences such as emulated travel and film, many researchers are looking to transform the healthcare industry with virtual reality technologies. Using a VR headset along with some exoskeletons and computer magic, researchers were recently able to restore feeling and even movement to many paraplegic patients who were unable to use their muscles for over a decade.
The Brazilian medical team calls their therapy “Brain Training”, and uses a combination of a VR headset, exoskeleton, and a non-invasive brain to computer connection to help patients regain a feeling of control over their lives. After only 10 months of sessions, the team found that the therapy was producing much better results than they had ever expected. Of the eight patients attending the “Brain Training”, one was able to walk around and drive her car, and some were even able to return to work after a decade of remaining sedentary.
Dr Nicolelis, who is a lead on the project, commented on the level of surprise the team experienced from the unexpected results:
We stumbled into this clinical recovery, which is something that is almost like a dream, because it took the approach to a whole new level. They have seen on their own terms a very significant improvement in their lives, in terms of mobility, of being able to feel their legs, to feel their skin; improvements in sexual performance for the men for instance. One of the ladies basically decided to deliver a baby because she now had visceral sensation.
The research suggests that there is some level of nervous system that remains “asleep” when people are paralyzed, and that extensive training can effectively wake these nerves up and help them communicate with muscles. This also makes the prospect of stem cell therapy all the more exciting, as we could potentially have the ability to send signals through new nervous systems implanted within patients.
Did everyone ever think that virtual reality could have such incredible effects? I certainly didn’t. Hopefully we will see even more advancements using the technology in the future.