Virtual reality helped improve nerve function in paralysed people

2:30pm Friday 12th August 2016

content supplied by NHS Choices

Clinical evaluations were carried out on the first day of the trial and then at 4, 7, 10 and 12 months. These evaluations included tests for:

 

What were the basic results?

The eight participants in the study carried out 2,052 sessions, totalling 1,958 hours. After 12 months of training with robotic devices all patients made neurological improvements in terms of being able to feel pain and touch. 

Patients also improved their control of key muscles and made improvements in their ability to walk. As a result of this study, half of the participants had their level of paraplegia changed from complete to incomplete. 

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers conclude: "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.

"Such a clinical potential was not anticipated by original BMI studies. Therefore, 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."

 

Conclusion

This study reported on the use of brain controlled devices in eight people with paraplegia to establish whether they may be able to regain their ability to walk by using a brain-controlled exoskeleton.

The study found that all patients made neurological improvements in terms of being able to feel pain and touch and had improved their control of key muscles and made improvements in their ability to walk.

These results would appear to chime with the known plasticity of the nervous system and brain. It can continue to change and adapt to different environmental stimulus. So it may be possible that damaged nerve pathways that have been dormant for many years could be rekindled through these types of activities.

However, whilst this technology is exciting and could provide hope for people with spinal cord injury, it is still in the very early stages. These findings are based on just eight people. Many more stages of testing will be needed in people with different causes and severities of paraplegia to confirm whether this does have true potential and who could gain most benefit. For now, it is too soon to know if and when and it could become available.

The cost of VR technology continues to fall, while its sophistication continues to rise. So its use in mainstream rehabilitation at some point in the near future is certainly not in the realms of fantasy.   

Summary

"Virtual reality has helped eight paralysed patients regain some feeling in their legs in 'a big surprise'," Sky News reports. Researchers using virtual reality (VR) combined with a robotic exoskeleton were surprised to find participants.

Links to Headlines

Virtual Reality Helps Paralysed Patients Regain Feeling. Sky News, August 11 2016

Brain-robot training triggers improvement in paralysis. BBC News, August 11 2016

Paralysed patients are able to walk again using virtual reality and brain training in 'suprising' [sic] breakthrough. Mail Online, August 11 2016

Virtual reality helps eight paralysed people feel their legs. New Scientist, August 11 2016

Links to Science

Donati ARC, Shokur S, Morya E, et al. Long-Term Training with a Brain-Machine Interface-Based Gait Protocol Induces Partial Neurological Recovery in Paraplegic Patients. Scientific Reports. Published online August 11 2016

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