For most people, virtual reality summons thoughts of fun and games, but for paraplegic patients, the game is very real. People who were once told they would never walk again are closer than ever to taking real steps thanks to training with VR technology. The Walk Again Project (WAP) has been at the forefront of the race to help paraplegics walk again, and a new trial using VR training with eight patients has resulted in some renewed motor control in every single case.
WAP is a nonprofit international research consortium, and its success in helping eight paraplegic patients regain partial sensation and muscle control in their legs is a major breakthrough in medical research. Lead researcher Dr. Miguel Nicolelis from Duke University explained in a call with media that the patients in the study began with zero sensation or motor control. Experimentation started with visualizations, but that had no impact.
“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,” he said. “It’s almost like the brain had erased the concept of moving by walking.”
Enter virtual reality. The patients used a commercially available VR headset, Oculus Rift, to enter a virtual world controlled by their brain activity, along with a special shirt scientists configured that sends haptic feedback to the patients’ forearms. Essentially, that feedback mimics the sensation of touching the ground and, for the sake of this experiment, the arms were used as phantom limbs in place of the patients’ legs, which had no sensation at all. In the VR environment, the patients’ figures could walk around and each footstep sent a sensation to the arms, tricking the brain into thinking the patients’ legs were doing the walking.
The next phase of the trial put each patient in a robotic exoskeleton for one hour a day, which further reinforced brain activity stimulated by the VR experience. Over time, each of the eight patients who participated in the study regained some sensation in their legs and pelvic area, and also relearned some muscle control. Some also learned to control bladder and bowel functions for the first time in years. Although none of the patients are up and walking on their own without assistance, one woman is now able to walk with a walker, braces, and a therapist’s aid after 13 years of paralysis. Her success, the most dramatic of the study participants, gives researchers hope that continued experimental therapies may help her and others like her regain mobility and independence.
The study was published this month in the journal Scientific Reports.