In Brazil, a research project on the reeducation of paraplegics thanks to virtual reality produced unprecedented results. In less than two years, seven patients out of eight saw their paralysis redefined from total to partial.
The Walk Again project was initiated in 2013 in São Paulo (Brazil) by an international pool of scientists who worked on eight paraplegic patients. The objective of Walk Again is to observe how man-machine interfaces (MMI) and especially virtual reality are capable of restoring the mobility of paralyzed people. The results that have just been published from a protocol carried out over 20 months are very encouraging.
They stipulate that long-term reeducation with the help of this type of interface leads to partial neurological recovery for patients. According to doctor Miguel Nicolelis, neurosciences specialist from Duke university (North Carolina), who was heading the study, “until now, no one had observed the recovery of these functions with a patient after so many years (3 to 13 years) of complete paralysis of the lower limbs”.
The reeducation protocol combined an immersion in virtual reality with the help of visual and tactile signals (feeling of touching the ground) and physical exercises on a treadmill. The body is supported by a mind-activated exoskeleton. A headset with electrodes allowed signals associated to movements sent by the patient’s brain to be picked up in order to decipher them.
It should be noted than no chip or electrode implant was used to stimulate the limbs. It was about relying on the patient’s own will to rediscover the path to mobility. “It can be a small number of nerve fibers, residual but sufficient to convey signals from the motor cortex area of the brain to the spine”, explains Miguel Nicolelis. After one year, 50% of the patients had rediscovered feelings.
Presentation of the Walk Again program:
The study went on beyond one year and obtained results on all the patients. Seven patients saw their paraplegia redefined from total to partial. Most have partially reactivated the control of their bladder and/or intestines. The best results were observed with two women, paralyzed for more than ten years. One of the patients can now sit down and drive. While the other was able to feel her baby and the contractions during labor. Finally, male patients were able to rediscover an erection.
A new study will attempt to determine the most favorable length of protocol to obtain results. A cost issue in particular that one must reduce to make the maximum of patients benefit from this.
For more information on the study published in “Nature” on August 11, 2016