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Virtual reality helps stroke victims walk again

The VR STROKE REHAB project is using a range of consoles with sensors which react to real-time movements of the user, replicating their actions on screen, to try and help stroke victims to regain everyday movements. Image: Dr Debbie Rand, Tel Aviv University/ Dr Harold Weingarden, Chaim Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer
The VR STROKE REHAB project is using a range of consoles with sensors which react to real-time movements of the user, replicating their actions on screen, to try and help stroke victims to regain everyday movements. Image: Dr Debbie Rand, Tel Aviv University/ Dr Harold Weingarden, Chaim Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer

Virtual reality and video games are being used to help people fight back from debilitating strokes.

Physical difficulties are the most common effects of a stroke – paralysis, weakness and changes in sensitivity on one side of the body can make it hard for stroke patients to carry out everyday movements such as walking, eating and getting dressed.

Being active, including attending rehabilitation treatments such as occupational and physical therapy, is an important way of preserving the individual’s remaining physical abilities and can help prevent another stroke. Yet this process is often as much a mental battle as a physical one: stroke rehabilitation can be hard, monotonous and slow.

The EU-funded VR STROKE REHAB project – based at Tel Aviv University in Israel – is using virtual reality video games to find out if they can help get stroke patients exercising again.

The team is using a range of commercially developed consoles with sensors which react to real-time movements of the user, replicating their actions on screen. They get stroke patients to play the games - often in a group setting - which helps encourage them to move around.

‘Video games delivered in a group setting keep the participants motivated and challenged by offering variability in exercises, providing intensity and meaningful task-related movements, and providing feedback,’ said Dr Debbie Rand, the project’s principal investigator.

She believes the idea could be extended to give patients continued access to the equipment. ‘Similar video game group interventions could possibly be run in community centres,’ she said.

Virtual reality for all

At first glance, it seems an extremely hi-tech approach to a common ailment. Yet virtual reality technology is making great strides, and early versions of the game-changing Oculus Rift system will be available this year.

‘Our research suggests that having a different body can even transform attitudes and behaviours.’

Professor Melvyn Slater, principal investigator, TRAVERSE

Soon, we could slip on a headset in our lounge and transport ourselves into a fantasy world. For people recovering from a stroke and learning to live with other debilitating illnesses, this alternative world might be one in which they can develop confidence in their abilities and become more engaged with the challenges set out before them.

‘Virtual reality allows us to be able to transform our sense of reality under controlled conditions, by technology,’ said Professor Melvyn Slater, based at the University of Barcelona, in Spain. ‘It affords the ability to realise dreams, to experience and potentially better understand the world from different points of view – and can now also offer the experience of transforming ourselves.’

Prof. Slater is principal investigator of the TRAVERSE project, funded by the European Research Council. He and his team are aiming to create immersive experiences powerful enough to completely transform an individual’s perception of their body.

‘The major concentration so far has been on how virtual reality can be used to give participants the illusion of having a different body to their real one, and the consequences of that,’ he explained. ‘Our research suggests that having a different body can even transform attitudes and behaviours.’

Transcending reality for rehabilitation

Perfecting ways of transcending reality would provide participants with experiences simply not possible in the real world, such as overcoming a disability to run along the beach, or even flying. Although nothing more than a complex illusion, such an experience could potentially give weakened and paralysed individuals the ability to practise and exaggerate their movement. This could result in greater emotional reward during physiotherapy.

Meanwhile, the first data from the VR STROKE REHAB project suggests that the team’s confidence seems well founded. Measurements of both speed and duration of movements revealed that participants using the virtual reality games were able to achieve five times more repetitions of ‘active, purposeful’ movements than those who were not.

Turning rehabilitation into a game could also make patients happier in the process. In a feedback questionnaire, almost all the participants said they very much enjoyed the experience. A more enjoyable programme could help battle the symptoms of depression, fatigue, and anxiety so common after strokes and other similar conditions.

Combined with commercial research, these projects are pushing the boundaries of what virtual reality can achieve, and what it can offer to patients overcoming both physical and mental disabilities. 

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