Virtual reality has assisted with eight paralysed patients regaining some of the feeling in their legs, according to a report proffered by Sky News.
Researchers utilised virtual reality combined with a robotic exoskeleton, and were amazed when participants regained some nerve function.
The exoskeleton in question was designed to respond to electric signals of the brain with virtual reality providing both visual and haptic stimulation.
All patients demonstrated improvements in their ability to feel sensation and improved their control of key muscles as well as improving in their ability to walk.
The study was carried out by researchers from a number of institutions, including the Associação Alberto Santos Dumont para Apoio à Pesquisa, University of Munich, Colorado State University and Duke University.
Funding for the study was provided by the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, and the authors declared no conflicts of interest.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Reports, on an open-access basis, so it is free to read online.
Professor Nicolelis, lead on the research, reported enthusiastically on the findings of the study.
“In virtually every one of these patients, the brain had erased the notion of having legs. You’re paralysed, you’re not moving, the legs are not providing feedback signals. By using a brain-machine interface in a virtual environment, we were able to see this concept gradually re-emerging into the brain.”
Researchers had recruited eight people with paraplegia, suffering from chronic spinal cord injuries.
Participants wore caps fitted with electrodes to read their brain signals and were asked to imagine moving their arms to create brain activity.
Once this was mastered, the participants learnt how to use their own brain signals to control an individual avatar or robotic leg by imagining that they were moving their own legs.
They were “connected” to the avatar through the use of a VR headset, that provided images, as well as a number of haptic sensors giving tactile feedback.
After 12 months of training with robotic devices, all patients made neurological improvements in terms of being able to feel pain and touch.
The researchers concluded that all participants had displayed encouraging signs of recovery.
“Overall, the results obtained in our study suggest that [brain-machine interfaces, BMI] applications should be upgraded from merely a new type of assistive technology to help patients regain mobility, through the use of brain-controlled prosthetic devices, to a potentially new neurorehabilitation therapy, capable of inducing partial recovery of key neurological functions.”
Scientists also noted that further research will be conducted in order to better understand the results of this initial study.
“The present findings raise the relevance of BMI-based paradigms, regarding their impact on SCI (spinal cord injury) patient rehabilitation. In this context, it would be very interesting to repeat the present study using a population of patients who suffered a SCI just a few months prior to the initiation of BMI training. We intend to pursue this line of inquiry next. Based on our findings, we anticipate that this population may exhibit even better levels of partial neurological recovery through the employment of our BMI protocol.”
Although findings are obviously in very early stages, this can certainly be considered an exciting development worthy of further investigation.