Research into VR’s benefits on balance and motor control continue to reveal new information.

More than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) and experience the neurological disorder that progressively affects their movement. Individually, the results can vary, but will usually include muscle rigidity, tremors, loss of balance, and changes in speech and gait. Researchers, including those at the University of Utah, are hopeful that VR can slow or diminish the effects of this chronic illness.

An April 9th study from the University of Utah found that using VR may help people suffering from Parkinson’s disease improve their balance and potentially decrease their rate of falls.

Researchers tested their VR as a controlled treadport, a CAVE-like environment where patients walk on a treadmill, harnessed to the ceiling to protect in the case of falls. The virtual scene is then projected across the walls and floor, giving the illusion of free mobility.

The hope was that the VR environment would give Parkinson’s patients a controlled and safe environment to work on muscle control and balance. As test subjects walked on a treadmill, they periodically changed directions and stepped over virtual objects. If they are successful in one round, the objects become larger in the next.

“The primary advantage is that they can encounter multiple obstacles and terrains while a safe environment is maintained using equipment such as a fall restraint tether,” said K. Bo Foreman, PT, PhD, associate professor and director of the Motion Capture Core Facility at the University of Utah. “Participants enjoyed the experience and thought it was fun, not just exercise. They liked training and challenging themselves without the fear of falling.”

Image Credit: K. Bo Foreman, University of Utah

After practicing with a virtual reality system for three 30-minute sessions a week for six weeks, the tested patients demonstrated improved obstacle negotiation, balance, and confidence.

The study’s sample size was small, just 10 participants and no control group, but the results are still encouraging and replicate previous research from other universities.  

A study completed in 2016 at Tel Aviv University found combining treadmill exercises with virtual reality improved balance for patients not only with Parkinson’s, but also mild cognitive impairment or dementia.

The Cleveland Clinic has also been utilizing a VR CAVE similar to the University of Utah’s to motivate patients with neurological disorders, like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, and help improve their motor skills.

As a next step the team at the University of Utah plans to investigate how their outcomes compare to studies in which Parkinson’s patients have undergone traditional training programs or none at all, to explore the benefits of adding a Treadport to its rehabilitation facility.

It is possible with the optimistic research being published that more rehab centers will include VR in their treatments.

“We are hopeful that this improved performance relates to decreased falls in their everyday life,” said K. Bo Foreman. “Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disease, and anything we can do to impact the progression is a step in the right direction.”

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