How virtual reality and computer algorithms helped a paralyzed man walk again

Posted on: September 26th, 2018 by
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Virtual reality is often praised as the next big thing in gaming, thanks to its ability to transport users into a whole other world. But what if that same technology could be used to help a paraplegic conceptualize how to walk again?

That’s exactly what researchers at the University of California Irvine set out to do with 28-year-old Adam Fritz, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident in 2008.

Incredibly, it worked.

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The technology uses a complicated combination of virtual reality and computer algorithms to electrically stimulate the muscles in the legs so that the patient can walk by simply thinking about walking.

Spinal cord injuries only sever the neural connection to the legs, but the region of the brain that is responsible for sending the command to move the legs is not affected.

Rehabilitation specialists often use electrodes to send electrical pulses into patient’s legs to allow them to move the muscles to keep them strong. They are also able to use electrodes embedded in a fitted cap to capture signals from the brain and direct them to a computer or device.

By combining these two ideas, researchers came up with a virtual reality “game” that allowed Fritz to find and train the part of his brain that controls walking.

According to Time, Fritz underwent 11 hours of this type of training before being hooked up to a harness connected to a computer that sent electrical jolts to his legs to allow him to take some steps.

“It wasn’t painful, but you could feel the muscles contracting,” Fritz told Time. “I’m wavering, but planted on the ground. You feel your whole body and leg moving.”

The researchers reported their findings in a case study published Wednesday in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation.

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