Researchers are working on a way to use virtual reality to retrain the brain and muscles of stroke victims to aid in recovery.
We have seen how virtual reality can be used for allowing collaborative design and controlling robots remotely. Now, researchers believe that VR may be able to help stroke victims regain lost motor function. Research conducted by University of Barcelona professor Mel Slater and Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson has demonstrated that virtual experiences can lead to changes in perceptions of oneself and others. For example, having an avatar of a child in a virtual reality environment can encourage people to exhibit more childlike behaviour in the ‘real world’. Inspired by this work, researchers at the University of Southern California are now examining how virtual reality could promote brain plasticity and recovery.
Sook-Lei Liew, who is director of the Neural Plasticity and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory, has been working on a study called Rehabilitation Environment using the Integration of Neuromuscular-based Virtual Enhancements for Neural Training. Liew’s team used an electroencephalography (EEG)-based brain-computer interface to help those with neuromuscular weakness in their arms control an avatar in VR. If EEG signals corresponding to an attempt to move an arm are detected, the avatar’s arm is moved in the VR environment. The team hopes that the resulting visual feedback through a VR headset could help strengthen neural pathways from the damaged motor cortex to the impaired arm, leading to real improvements in mobility.
The research group recently finished testing the prototype with 22 healthy older adults, who provided data on what the brain and muscle signals look like when they move. They are now starting to test with stroke patients in a controlled lab setting.