Learning to Walk Again with Virtual Reality

From “mind over matter” to “perception is reality,” there are a whole host of phrases that describe the power that the mind has over the body. This is exactly the concept that researchers are trying to use to help paraplegic patients walk again.

Walking Again

Using virtual reality, the Walk Again Project (WAP), a nonprofit international research consortium, is on a mission to help patients who suffer from paralysis. The theory is that those who consistently walk within virtual settings will be able to one day regain control over their limbs.

By working with patients over a long period of time, doctors and specialists are placing patients in virtual reality settings that allows them to use brain activity to control an avatar version of themselves. Using a combination of Oculus Rift (the consumer virtual reality tool) and other technology, the team was able to create a shirt that patients would wear. The shirt sends feedback to their arms that simulates touch.

The technology focus on creating phantom limbs for patients. By frequently giving patients the ability to control those limbs (for up to an hour a day), some patients were able to spark their remaining nerves in their limbs to send messages back and forth to the brain.

In one case, a 32-year woman who has been paralyzed for more than 13 years was able to stand using braces. The idea is to use exoskeletons and braces to gradually give more control to the patients, with the hope of one day teaching their bodies to walk again.

Looking to the Future

Moving forward, researchers hope to see certain patients regain control over their bladder and bowel functionality. Even though stem cells and electronic implants are showing instances of success in some cases, the brain-machine-interface is a far less invasive procedure.

It takes a lot of work and time to go through the therapy but if researchers are correct in their theory, it could pay off for these patients in the end.

What do you think? Is it possible for a person who has lost control of their limbs to walk again? Join the conversation by commenting below!

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