Virtual Reality Helping those with Parkinson’s Disease Walk

Recent work has found virtual reality (VR) to be effective in building balance skills in patients with Parkinson’s disease. This system successfully improved patient’s obstacle negotiation and balance, as well as their confidence in moving around in their environment, according to their findings published in Experimental Biology.

Walking is a very challenging task for those living with Parkinson’s, due to damage in their dopamine-producing neurons. Muscle rigidity, tremors, and impaired speed of gait often lead to falls and injuries in patients with the disease, making balance therapy a common treatment.

A VR Solution for Patients With Parkinson’s Disease

The researchers utilized VR to create a virtual training system that provides a controlled environment in which the patients can refine their balance and muscle control when walking. The patients step over obstacles that appear in front of them while walking on a treadmill, with obstacles getting progressively larger as the patient becomes comfortable with the course.

“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,” stated K. Bo Foreman, PT, PhD, and 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 research team tested the system with 10 patients with Parkinson’s disease, each of whom using it for three half-hour sessions a week for a six-week duration. At a follow-up, the patients were found to have significant improvements in navigation over obstacles of different sizes, balance, and greater range of motion at the hip and ankle. Each of these factors analyzed is strongly correlated with one’s risk of falling.

This testing was done at the University of Utah’s Treadport, a large virtual environment equipped with a digital projection scene on the walls and floors. As opposed to the traditional head-mounted VR devices, this full room immersive environment is found in many universities and is often referred to as a CAVE.

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Going Forward With this Approach

Foreman and colleagues are working with the University of Utah’s hospital to potentially add the Treadport system to their physical therapy facility, being that many medical centers do not utilize CAVEs. The team also plans to adapt their VR system to be used in head-mounted VR devices, allowing it to be used outside of the Treadport facility.

The researchers plan to compare their VR therapy to traditional physical therapies, being that this study only analyzed the improvements of patients using Treadport.

“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.”

Foreman presented these findings at the American Association of Anatomists annual meeting during the 2019 Experimental Biology meeting, which was held last month in Orlando.

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Source: EurekAlert, Experimental Biology