Virtual Reality helps paraplegics learn to walk again, study shows

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Virtual Reality helps paraplegics
Source: Scientific Reports 6

Virtual Reality helps paraplegics learn to walk again, study shows. Scientists have found a way to make paraplegics regain partial muscle control and sensation in their lower limbs by using Virtual Reality and robotic exoskeletons.

A multidisciplinary team of scientists has been engaged in a revolutionary project that might turn out to be life changing for chronic spinal cord injury (SCI) paraplegics. Combining the use of Virtual Reality environments, brain-machine interface (BMI) platforms, brain-controlled robotic exoskeletons and virtual avatars, researchers have achieved unprecedented neurological recovery results for patients with spinal cord injuries.

Eight chronic spinal cord injury patients were signed into the trial and subjected to long-term training.

“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. It’s almost like the brain had erased the concept of moving by walking,” Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, the lead researcher from Duke University in North Carolina, said.

At first, scientists were merely trying to create a new robotic prosthetic to help the patients walk. However, as the trial was unfolding, they noticed something completely unexpected. All the patients who kept up with their training started regaining some feeling and motor skills.

Virtual Reality helps paraplegics learn to walk again
Virtual Reality helps paraplegics regain partial muscle control. Source: Scientific Reports 6

Twice a week, for an hour a day, patients were hooked up to an Oculus Virtual Reality headset. They were trained to use their brainwaves to control a virtual avatar of themselves walking. By monitoring their activity, researchers figured out how to trick the patients’ brains into actually feeling like they were walking. The patients were then put into a robotic exoskeleton with legs which they could physically move with their brainwaves. Over the first twelve months of the trial, the robotic exoskeleton helped them walk. But the patients also started being able to voluntarily move their own muscles as well.

One of the eight patients, a 32-year-old woman who had been paralyzed from the waist down for 13 years at the time of the trial, experienced the most dramatic improvements. Before joining the study, she couldn’t even stand using braces. After 13 months of training, she started walking using a walker and braces, and she was capable of moving her legs voluntarily.

cure for paraplegic patients
Source: Scientific Reports 6

Scientists believe the procedures helped restart communication between the surviving nerves and the muscle receptors in the paraplegic patients’ lower limbs. The patients still can’t walk on their own, but their quality of life has improved drastically.

“These patients were able to regain some level of bladder control – which is very important, and also bowel function. They were able to basically, for the first time in many years, to control their bathroom routine in addition to being able to move and to feel their bodies again,” Nicolelis explained.

Every patient who remained in the trial has been reclassified as only partially paralyzed.

“These findings suggest, for the first time, that long-term exposure to brain-machine interface protocols enriched with tactile feedback and combined with robotic gait training may induce cortical and subcortical plasticity capable of triggering partial neurological recovery even in patients originally diagnosed with a chronic complete spinal cord injury,” the study concludes.

The researchers are continuing to work with the paraplegic patients to see how much they can improve. They also hope to use this procedure as therapy for other kinds of disorders.

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