VR Used To Help Parkinson’s Patients

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative condition that sees a part of the brain become progressively more damaged over the course of years. One of the symptoms that sufferers have to grapple with is reduced mobility, through involuntary shaking, stiff and inflexible muscles, and in some cases balance problems.

Although there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, there are a number of things that people can do to improve their lives and live well with the condition. Typically, this involves physiotherapy and occupational therapy, as well as medication, the NHS notes.

One team of researchers has been looking at how new technological developments could help those who suffer from Parkinson’s.

Specifically, the team at the University of Utah have been exploring how virtual reality (VR) could be used to help people with the condition improve their mobility and balance, with the aim to reduce the likelihood of falls.

After six weeks of practicing in a specialist VR environment, the patients were better able to avoid obstacles, had improved their balance and were more confident at navigating around things in their path.

The team at the University of Utah created a safe space where people with Parkinson’s can practice walking around a room and avoiding obstacles, to help them improve their muscle control and balance.

In the specialist VR suite, the patients walk on a Treadport and are presented with a virtual environment where they have to step over and walk around obstacles. If they pass the first round, the exercise is repeated but with larger obstacles.

Over the course of six weeks, ten patients each had three, 30-minute sessions a week. As well as better balance and improvements in their ability to navigate around large and small boxes, all the patients had also developed a wider range of motion in their hips and ankles.

  1. Bo Foreman, P.T. Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Motion Capture Core Facility at the University of Utah, explained that those who participated in the study found the experience fun and “not just exercise”.

He said that they enjoyed “training and challenging themselves without the fear of falling”. This was made possible due to the specialist VR suite they utilised. Mr Foreman commented: “The primary advantage is that they can encounter multiple obstacles and terrains while a safe environment is maintained using equipment such as a fall restraint tether.”

The next step for Foreman and the team is to compare their results to those from studies where Parkinson’s patients have undertaken traditional training programmes, or none at all. They are also in talks with the University of Utah’s hospital system about introducing a Treadport to its rehabilitation facility.

They are also exploring how they can adapt their VR experience to make it suitable for use with VR headsets, the idea being that it would be easier to introduce similar systems in hospitals around the US and elsewhere.

This is far from the only example of VR being used in a medical context. Earlier this year, Dr Putrino, from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said that VR could have applications for pain relief among those who suffer from chronic pain.

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