Paralyzed patients regain muscle control with the help of virtual reality

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By Hope King

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — A 32-year-old woman who had been paralyzed from the waist down for 13 years has regained partial control over her legs after a revolutionary new treatment.

The woman, dubbed “Patient 1,” is part of an ongoing research study that uses a system of brain-controlled robotics and virtual reality to restore neurological and physical interactions.

The study involved eight spinal cord injury paraplegics — all of whom recovered partial sensation and muscle control after about a year of training. It was conducted by the Walk Again Project in São Paulo, Brazil and led by a Duke University researcher.

The conclusions from the first part of the study were published Thursday in “Scientific Reports.” Research has been underway for a total of 28 months.

Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a Duke University neuroscientist and lead researcher, told CNNMoney that the use of virtual reality technology has been key to the treatments.

“When you remain paralyzed for many years like our patients — [between] three to 13 years — your brain starts to forget what it’s like to have legs and the concept of walking,” he said.

To induce the brain to remember, the researchers created a special VR system.

When wearing a Facebook-owned Oculus Rift headset, the patients could control a digital representation of themselves using their thoughts. At the same time, the patients wore a special long-sleeved shirt.

When the patients moved their avatars in virtual reality, the shirt sent a sensation to match the surface of whatever the patient was standing on, such as grass or sand. This fooled the brain into interpreting the sensations as feedback from the movement of the feet or legs, helping the brain remember what it’s like to walk.

“If you don’t provide touch, then you don’t create a sense of reality,” Nicolelis said.

Once the patients made progress with controlling their virtual bodies, they graduated to using a brain-controlled robotic walker to move their real bodies.

At that point, different body parts sent signals back to the spinal cord on their own.

Over time, stimulating these multiple layers of interactions helped reawaken a small number of nerves that may have survived. This created a connection again between the brain and certain muscles.

Not only has the treatment helped patients recover some of their muscle control, it has also helped them control their bodily functions, such as bladder and bowel movements. These improvements are also important because it means patients can rely less on laxatives and catheters, and that reduces infection risks.

Nicolelis hopes to track these patients for as long as possible.

And because VR and haptic systems aren’t very expensive, he believes this kind of treatment can be made available widely in the future.