Peak Seeker: VR Physical Therapy Helps Paraplegics Regain Muscle Use

Is VR physical therapy the key to helping paraplegics walk again?

There’s more to virtual reality (VR) than immersing yourself in the gorgeous scenery of skiing in the Swiss Alps or helicoptering over the Grand Canyon — all from your couch. Cutting-edge projects have begun using VR for the greater good.

One of the targets? Paraplegics. While at one time it was believed there was precious little hope for paraplegics to regain control of their lower body, this technology is providing hope for the future — backed with scientific evidence.

A 2014 Miracle

Let’s go back to 2014, when 29-year-old paraplegic Juliano Pinto kicked off the opening match at Brazil’s FIFA World Cup wearing a robotic exoskeleton suit crafted by 150 scientists. The suit contained a cap that transmitted brain waves to a computer that facilitated his leg movement. Taking the lead was Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, renowned for his work showing that monkeys had the ability to control avatar arms using similar brain activity.

Now, under the Walk Again Project, Dr. Nicolelis and his team are pairing brain activity with VR to help humans walk again. And with current progress, patients’ abilities go beyond wearing the robotic suit; the goal is to retrain the brains of paraplegics to enhance their everyday lives.

Is VR Physical Therapy the Key?

The new study featured eight participants. During a call with Scientific Reports, Dr. Nicolelis noted, “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.”

That was the case until VR physical therapy stepped in to help.

The patients donned VR headsets for one hour twice per week. In the headset, they’d see an avatar of themselves, controlling the avatar’s movement with their brainwaves. By studying this experience, scientists were able to trick the brain into feeling it was walking. They then placed patients into the robotic suit, which they were able to move with the same brain activity.

The results were unexpected. According to The Guardian, while scientists had at first wanted to use advanced computing and robotic technology to assist patients in regaining a sense of control in everyday life, the paraplegics involved in the trial were all able to regain some sensation, movement and functions that had been taken from them. One patient was even capable of driving, whereas another could conceive and deliver a child. Another has been able to make walking movements when suspended in a harness to move the robot exoskeleton.

The Future of VR in Medicine

This is further proof that VR is revolutionizing health care. Hospitalized children no longer need to miss birthday parties or feel far away from their families. Restless hospital patients can the travel the world from their beds (Caribbean in winter, anyone?). Heck, you can even watch — experience, to be exact — a live surgery and expand your knowledge as if you were the performing doctor.

The Peak Seeker Series highlights notable men and women who, through the use of energy, technology and more, have made a real difference. They’re the renegades of the world, and this periodical highlights that social impact.

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