After using a virtual reality training system for six weeks, patients with Parkinson’s disease experienced improved balance along with more confidence navigating around obstacles in their way, according to the results of a new study published in the journal Experimental Biology.
Parkinson’s disease leads to muscle and movement problems which can significantly decrease a patient’s range of motion and impair balance, often leading to falls and injuries. To help patients manage these challenges, the researchers developed a virtual reality (VR) training system that gives patients a safe space to practice their muscle control and balance.
During the training, patients walked on a treadmill while stepping over virtual objects that appeared before them. If they were successful in one round, the objects became bigger in the next round.
“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, P.T., 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 study involved 10 Parkinson’s patients who practiced with the VR training system for three 30-minute sessions a week for six weeks. After the program, participants showed significant improvements in their ability to negotiate over large and small boxes, better balance and a wider range of motion in the hip and ankle, all of which have been previously shown to correlate with a lower risk of falls.
“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 team tested their program in the University of Utah’s Treadport, a CAVE-like virtual environment with a locomotion interface allowing digital scene projection across multiple walls and the floor. Many universities have CAVEs (a term for room-sized immersive virtual reality environments), though medical centers usually do not.
The team hopes to adapt the virtual reality system for head-mounted virtual reality devices, which would make it more widely available and easier to implement for clinical use, Foreman said.
Foreman presented the research at the American Association of Anatomists annual meeting during the 2019 Experimental Biology conference in Orlando, Florida.
Source: Experimental Biology