Sao Paulo, Brazil – With worldwide buzz being created by the 2016 Olympics in Rio, it would be easy to assume that Brazil’s biggest miracle in recent memory must involve an Olympian. Surprisingly, that’s not the case.
Last week, a team of researchers in Sao Paulo published an article in Scientific Reports summarizing the findings of their most recent work. Over the past few years, they used cutting-edge “Brain-Machine Interfaces” coupled with virtual reality as rehab therapy for eight paraplegic patients. Essentially, a motorized exoskeleton was attached to each patient’s lower body (which was triggered neurologically by the paraplegic’s own brain and could send sensory information back through the limbs). The use of this suit was combined with an immersive VR setup. Thus the patients were able to actually experiencevirtual walking as their paralyzed bodies were moved by the exoskeleton. By joining these two technologies, the patients received intensive tactile feedback that matched the visual cues of VR. While the existence of such technology seems miraculous enough, the best news is yet to come.
Researchers were stunned when they found that after just 12 months, all 8 patients experienced clinically significant improvement in two areas: perceiving sensation in the paralyzed limbs and the ability to exert motor control over the previously paralyzed area. This is the first time that any Brain-Machine Interface training was able to demonstrate any clinical recovery. Additionally, half of the patients improved so much that their overall paralysis classification was upgraded to incomplete paraplegia status.
Why This Matters:
While VR has been touted as the next big thing in personal and social entertainment, its potential impact goes far beyond mere amusement. “Brain-machine interfaces, in the future, may not be just an assistive technology to restore mobility… [they] may lead to new therapy”– Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D. Traditionally patients had to look to pharmaceuticals, physical therapy, and surgical intervention for clinical recovery across countless disease states, but in this new era of BMI and VR, we must look beyond the traditional medical landscape for innovative therapies.