Virtual reality is helping those with Parkinson’s disease find their balance, and potentially decrease their chance of falling. After individuals practiced with a VR system for six weeks, participants had improved obstacle negotiation and balance, and also could navigate barriers in their path with more confidence.
Parkinson’s disease causes muscle and movement problems, which ultimately decreases an individual’s range of motion and impairs balance. Sometimes, just walking through the house and getting a glass of water can be a major feat.
In order to mitigate these daily challenges, researchers created a VR system that patients can use in a safe space. The system works by having patients walk on a treadmill, while practicing stepping over virtual objects that appear as they navigate through their virtual environment. If successful in round one, the objects become larger.
“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, Ph.D., 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.”
The researchers have currently tested their system on 10 patients with Parkinson’s disease who used it for three, 30 minute sessions for six weeks. The testing was done at the University of Utah’s Treadport, a CAVE-like virtual environment with a locomotion interface that displays a digital scene across multiple walls and the floor.
Once the program came to completion, individuals could navigate over large and small boxes and had an overall better sense of balance. They also had a wider range of motion in their hip and ankle, which have been shown to correlate with lower risk of falling.
“We are hopeful that this improved performance relates to decreased falls in their everyday life,” said Foreman. “Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disease, and anything we can do to impact the progression is a step in the right direction.”
The research team is currently working with University of Utah’s hospital system and hopes to add a Treadport to its rehabilitation facility. Additionally, the team would like to adapt the VR system for head-mounted VR devices so it is easier to implement in hospitals.