August 24, 2008

Stroke Sufferers Take Virtual Road to Recovery

By Emily Dugan

It may look like a futuristic video game, but this virtual reality treadmill could hold the key to rebuilding lives for stroke and injury sufferers.

A scientist at Portsmouth University has developed technology that can speed up recovery for patients by tricking them into believing they are moving more slowly than they actually are.

Moving images on a giant screen respond to patients' efforts on an adapted treadmill, encouraging them to move faster and further than they might ordinarily progress.

Using a variety of different settings, including urban and woodland landscapes, the device creates a virtual world for the patient to "walk" through on the treadmill. This immersion also acts as a distraction, and early research has shown patients using it have a decreased perception of pain.

Wendy Powell, the researcher at Portsmouth University who developed the software, said: "The virtual system encourages patients to walk more quickly and for longer, almost without them realising it.

"It's not just that they're distracted from the pain; by moving faster than they realise, their body actually feels it less. We're effectively fooling the brain and cheating the body.

"It's a lot more fun than traditional rehab and it can actually facilitate a much faster recovery. Our test subjects are usually surprised when I tell them they've improved by up to 20 per cent."

Clinical trials on patients are taking place in collaboration with McGill University in Canada and early results are said to be encouraging.

Stroke sufferer Andy Long, 61, has been using the technology as part of his rehab and describes it as "magic".

"The vast majority of stroke survivors cannot use a normal treadmill because they are not in control. Many can only hold on with one hand, making it almost impossible," said Mr Long. "Walking is the best possible exercise for their bodies, and this system means it could all become available to them."

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