Scientists at the famed Technion Institute of Technology in Israel have created a wearable virtual reality device to provide patients suffering from balance disorders with supplemental auditory and visual information to restore normal gait.
According to lead researcher Professor Yoram Baram of the Faculty of Computer Science, the device combines a wearable, cell phone-sized audio component – which measures body movement, processes it and sends feedback to the user through earphones – with a visual feedback apparatus he developed for Parkinson’s patients 10 years ago.
The visual component presents users with a virtual, tiled-floor image displayed on one eye via a tiny piece that clips onto glasses worn by the user. This allows the user to distinguish between the virtual floor and real obstacles, making it possible to navigate even rough terrain or stairs.
The researchers found that auditory feedback significantly improved the gait of both MS and Parkinson’s patients (though the improvement was less pronounced in Parkinson’s patients). With regard to walking speed, patients showed an average improvement of 12.84% while wearing the device. There were also positive residual short-term therapeutic effects (18.75% improvement) after use. Average improvement in stride was 8.30% while wearing the device and 9.93% residually.
“Healthy people have other tools, such as sensory feedback from muscles nerves, which report on muscle control, telling them whether or not they are using their muscles correctly,” says Baram. “This feedback is damaged in Parkinson and MS patients and the elderly, but auditory feedback can be used to help them walk at a fixed pace.”
Results from a small study (14 randomly selected patients with gait disturbances predominantly due to MS) on the device are published in the February 2007 issue of the Journal of the Neurological Sciences .
The integrated device – the first to respond to the patient’s motions rather than just providing fixed visual or auditory cues – is already in use at a number of medical centers in Israel and the United States, including the University of Cincinnati and the State University of New York.