Scientists have been testing virtual reality or VR to treat movement problems caused by a stroke, brain injury, or Parkinson’s disease.
The National Institutes of Health is funding research to find where VR may help in medicine such as rehabilitation exercises, improving mental health, and reducing pain.
Dr. Amy Bastian, a movement specialist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, is using VR for adults who have damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain that coordinates movement.
When the eyes can see the body, the damaged cerebellum tries to take over, but putting people into a VR scene where their bodies don't exist helps other parts of the brain to learn how to coordinate movements instead.
This instant feedback for a successful movement is vital for the brain to forge new learning pathways, Bastian explains. “In VR, we can manipulate the environment in real time to help them learn to use another brain system.”
Dr. Andrew Huberman, a VR researcher at Stanford University, is testing techniques to help people cope with fear and anxiety.
“Vision, more than any other sense, is the sense that humans use to navigate the world and survive," explains Huberman. "And, more than any other sense, it drives phobias and anxiety.”
A unique advantage of VR, Huberman explains, is that researchers can directly measure signs of anxiety including changes in eye movements and pupil size.
Dr. Sam Sharar, a pain expert at the University of Washington, uses VR to distract children and adults who are recovering from burns.
“People have a fixed amount of conscious attention,” he says. “If you divert some of that from experiencing a painful procedure to another task, the brain experiences less pain. This happens even though the same pain signal is coming through the skin.”
The team’s studies have shown that the immersive program reduced people’s pain during burn care by half compared with playing a regular video game.
“If VR could be used to deliver this type of therapy in an immersive, virtual environment,” Sharar says, “I think that would have tremendous potential to improve self-management of pain.”
"The feedback [VR] can provide to the senses will also continue to improve," adds Huberman. "Such improvements could potentially open doors to its use in more areas of health care."