Technion-Israel Institute of Technology scientists have created a virtual reality device that combines auditory and visual feedback to improve walking speed and stride length in patients suffering from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson's disease.
According to lead researcher Professor Yoram Baram of the Faculty of Computer Science, the device combines a wearable, cell phone-sized audio component – which measures body movement, processes it and sends feedback to the user through earphones – with a visual feedback apparatus he developed for Parkinson's patients 10 years ago.
The visual component presents users with a virtual, tiled-floor image displayed on one eye via a tiny piece that clips onto glasses worn by the user. This allows the user to distinguish between the virtual floor and real obstacles, making it possible to navigate even rough terrain or stairs.
Baram and Prof. Ariel Miller of the Faculty of Medicine and the Multiple Sclerosis and Brain Research Center at the Carmel Medical Center in Haifa examined the effects of the patented device on the gait quality of MS patients.
The researchers found that auditory feedback significantly improved the gait of both MS and Parkinson's patients (though the improvement was less pronounced in Parkinson's patients). With regard to walking speed, patients showed an average improvement of 12.84% while wearing the device. There were also positive residual short-term therapeutic effects (18.75% improvement) after use. Average improvement in stride was 8.30% while wearing the device and 9.93% residually.
“Healthy people have other tools, such as sensory feedback from muscles nerves, which report on muscle control, telling them whether or not they are using their muscles correctly,” says Baram. “This feedback is damaged in Parkinson and MS patients and the elderly, but auditory feedback can be used to help them walk at a fixed pace.”
Results from a small study (14 randomly selected patients with gait disturbances predominantly due to MS) on the device are published in the February 2007 issue of the Journal of the Neurological Sciences .
The integrated device – the first to respond to the patient's motions rather than just providing fixed visual or auditory cues – is already in use at a number of medical centers in Israel and the United States, including the University of Cincinnati and the State University of New York.
The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is Israel's leading science and technology university. Home to the country's winners of the Nobel Prize in science, it commands a worldwide reputation for its pioneering work in nanotechnology, computer science, biotechnology, water-resource management, materials engineering, aerospace and medicine. The majority of the founders and managers of Israel's high-tech companies are alumni. Based in New York City, the American Technion Society is the leading American organization supporting higher education in Israel, with 17 offices around the country.