Virtual reality tech helps paraplegics regain feeling, movement

Man with VR headset on

Eight paraplegics have regained partial sensation and muscle control in their legs after months of training using brain-controlled robotic devices, according to research published in Scientific Reports.

The patients had been paralyzed at least five years and took part in a combined 2,052 sessions over 1,958 hours. They trained using a brain-machine interface that includes a virtual reality system to simulate full control of their legs. It included tactile feedback with a body avatar or robotic devices, such as the robot-assisted walking therapy Lokomat or exoskeleton, according to the report.

“What we’re showing in this paper is that patients who used a brain-machine interface for a long period of time experienced improvements in motor behavior, tactile sensations and visceral functions below the level of the spinal cord injury,” Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D., who is leading the project, said in an announcement. “Until now, nobody has seen recovery of these functions in a patient so many years after being diagnosed with complete paralysis.”

Several patients saw improvement after seven months of training. After a year, the diagnosis for four patients was upgraded from complete to partial paralysis.

One woman who had been paralyzed for 13 years and previously unable to stand using braces was able to move her legs voluntarily while a harness supported her weight after only a little more than a year of training, according to the report.

The researchers plan to repeat the study using patients with more recent spinal cord injuries.

To learn more:
- here's the research
- read the announcement