Video game companies and movie makers have been the most enthusiastic supporters of developing virtual reality goggles. If you’re not familiar with these techno-gadgets, they are generally helmet-like devices you wear over your head that induce the belief you’re somewhere where you really aren’t, doing something you really aren’t doing. The experience is so real you believe it’s happening.
For example, you might believe you’re riding a roller-coaster. And that the ride’s car just went off the rails and flew into space. All while you’re sitting in your living room as safe as can be. Of course, more pleasant experiences are available, too.
Now medical researchers are finding that these devices can boost brain health in a number of surprising ways. . .
It’s not out of the question that soon many folks may be going to their healthcare practitioners for a virtual reality treatment to heal what ails them.
And getting real — not just virtual – results!
Extra Brain Plasticity
When researchers in Israel took a look at how virtual reality could help people with Parkinson’s disease, they found that combining specially-designed treadmill exercises with a virtual reality session could alter the brain’s activity and increase the plasticity (adaptability) of neuronal networks — thereby improving brain function.1
This was helpful even in people with advanced neurodegenerative disease.
The researchers point out that when you suffer Parkinson’s, your brain gradually loses more and more neurons. The dwindling number of these cells leads to memory and thinking difficulties along with making it hard to move around and keep your balance as the neurons that control movement die off.
That’s dangerous – when people with Parkinson’s stumble and fall, their injuries can often be fatal.
In the Israeli study, people with Parkinson’s exercised on a treadmill three times a week, an hour each session for six weeks. Wearing virtual reality goggles, they played a specially designed game that showed their feet walking on city sidewalks or in a park.
The game used the virtual setting to teach them how to avoid obstacles, how to plan their movements ahead of time and how to do two things simultaneously – solving cognitive issues while walking safely.
“The takeaway here is that even relatively late in the disease, when 60-80 percent of dopaminergic neurons have died, there is still an opportunity to promote plasticity in the brain,” says researcher Jeff Hausdorff. “Moreover, to induce specific brain changes, exercise should be personalized and targeted to a specific clinical problem.”
Meanwhile, researchers in Denmark have discovered that virtual reality therapy can improve arm and hand movement after a stroke inflicts brain damage. The treatment is as effective as regular physical therapy.2
This study focused on 120 people, mostly in their 50s and 60s, who had suffered strokes and were left with muscle weakness and other problems in their upper arms, wrists and hands. The stroke victims used gloves with sensors along with video screens (instead of goggles) to play several games that incorporated movements of their fingers, arms and hands.
The researchers say their study shows that stroke patients in the future may be able to use virtual reality to do therapy at home without having to travel to a medical facility to treat their stroke-related issues.
Other treatment areas where virtual reality is showing promise:
Easing depression: Research in Spain shows that immersive virtual reality therapy can help folks with depression control their self-criticism and express more compassion for themselves. In this study, a month of virtual reality therapy reduced the symptoms of depression in 60% of the research subjects.3
Decreasing pain in hospitalized patients: A study in California demonstrates that virtual reality treatment can significantly ease pain when you’re in the hospital. The researchers found that immersive, calming scenes like flying in a helicopter over a rugged landscape or swimming with whales dropped pain by 24 percent.4
Reducing phantom pain in paraplegics: Swiss scientists have focused on how virtual reality therapy can be used to counter phantom body pain experienced by paraplegics who have no real feeling in their limbs, but who suffer pain from nerve damage. The researchers note that this kind of pain does not respond to treatment by painkillers. But by creating the illusion that a person can feel the sensation of being tapped on an arm or leg where the nerves have stopped functioning correctly, the pain can be diminished.5
I was surprised when I researched all these potential uses of virtual reality. It seems like the entertainment market is always front and center when the subject of VR comes up, but there’s some real therapy potential in this new technique and scientists are working on it with high hopes.