In the past, the word paraplegic had the connotation of being forever. That once you’re paralyzed, you have to learn to live with it.
But that may no longer be the case. In a new study published in the Scientific Reports journal, researchers have figured out a way to improve mobility in patients who were paraplegic through virtual reality and motorized exoskeletons.
While patients weren’t entirely cured of their injuries, they did begin to experience, for the first time since becoming paralyzed, touch and pain. Some were even able to regain control over their bladder and bowels. Four of the patients had to be reclassified from being completely paralyzed to incomplete paraplegia.
Though, it was stated in the study that while this new assistive strategy works at restoring mobility in severely paralyzed patients, “no study in animals or in human subjects has indicated that long-term BMI training could induce any type of clinical recovery.”
The program the patients underwent was 12 months. It consisted of a regimen of daily movements, virtual reality training, visual-tactile feedback, and learning to walk with a custom-designed lower-limb exoskeleton – basically android legs. The program had three parts to it.
In the first part, researchers studied the patient’s brain wave activity by using an Oculus Rift – a virtual reality headset. They also measured the patient’s vibrating tactical feedback with a device that attached to their forearms.
What they discovered was that by making their patients play soccer in virtual reality, they were able to activate areas of the brain associated with leg movement, that were once unavailable.
In the second phase, patients were hooked up to a robotic exoskeleton and with it, walked on a treadmill to simulate movement.
Then, combining the first and second phase, patients played virtual reality soccer in conjunction with their new exoskeleton, which they controlled via Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) – basically, this means they controlled the robotic legs with their mind.
While the findings have been quite minimal to most people’s standards, the potential for further probing the possibilities of machine-aid medical recovery is astounding.
In fact, this study is the first time long-term brain machine interface techniques have proven to lead to the improvement of neurological functions.
As of yet, spinal cord injury has been incredibly difficult for doctors to treat. But with the usage of virtual reality and exoskeletal support systems, we may see a renaissance in the way paralyzed patients are treated.