Virtual Reality Technology Helps Paraplegics Feel Their Legs

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The Law Of... recovering from a spinal cord injury

Research by the Duke University Medical Center has shown that the use of modern technology could help the rehabilitation process for those affected by a spinal cord injury.

Simpson Millar's Partner in Serious Personal Injury comments on research that shows technology could help the rehabilitation process for serious injuries

Responding to the research, David Erwin – Partner in Serious Personal Injury for Simpson Millar – explains how advances in science could offer hope to those affected by serious injuries.

Brain Training Technique

Using an artificial exoskeleton, a Virtual Reality (VR) headset, and a system that links brain activity to a computer program, researchers were able to help paraplegic patients restore some movement and feeling to their legs.

The rehabilitation breakthrough was a result of the Walk Again Project, orchestrated by Duke University and is being heralded a significant discovery, as opposed to an extension of previous work.

Amongst the 8 paraplegic volunteers for the project, some had been paralysed for more than a decade after suffering severe spinal cord injuries.

The effectiveness of the so-called 'Brain Training' technique – which involved strapping paraplegics into an exoskeleton and having them walk on a treadmill while wearing a VR headset – should give hope to sufferers of serious injuries.

Having taken part in the study for just 10 months, the upturn in fortunes amongst patients was unexpected, with the results being found as researchers "stumbled into this clinical recovery."

Thinking About Movements

The research involved asking those who had been paralysed to think about moving their legs, by monitoring their brain activities it became clear that this was not possible for the participants, who in most cases suffered a serious spinal cord injury that wiped out a connection between their brain and legs.

Using an artificial skeleton, a treadmill, a safety harness, and VR technology, the researchers were able to re-establish the thought process for walking; this in turn led to the early signs of rehabilitation for the participants.

While the patients responded in different ways, all have at least reported a partial restoration of muscle movement or skin sensation. In one case, a participant has been able to drive a car again and another has been able to give birth, all while feeling contractions.

The implication of these results amongst sufferers of spinal cord injuries is that even injuries that appear to completely severe nerve tissues may hold some connections that can be reawakened after years of inaction.

As one patient – who was completely paralysed and did not react to other forms of rehabilitation – was able to walk with the aid of crutches and hip to ankle braces as a result of this treatment, this research has the potential to completely alter rehabilitation from serious life-changing injuries.

Commenting on the rehabilitation breakthrough, David said:

"This is an excellent study, which will undoubtedly give hope to those suffering from paralysis, as well as their families."

"Whilst the road to recovery will always be a long one, it is encouraging to see advances in science like this making a real difference in the short term."

"The researchers themselves seem confident that this could be the first discovery of many and it seems like that more advances in rehabilitation will follow as research progresses."

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