How Virtual Reality is Shaping Tomorrow and Helping the Disabled

Virtual reality (VR) is on the rise in the medical field. In an article posted to the Stanford University School of Medicine’s website this past July, Stanford University neurosurgeons discussed how they are using a virtual reality (VR) system to accurately plan surgeries and educate future doctors.

The article quotes Dr. Anand Veeravagu, the head of the Stanford Neurosurgical Simulation Lab and Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery, saying of the VR system that, “It’s a window into the brain – and a window into the brain of the particular patient we’re going to operate on.”

Stanford’s VR system uses imaging from MRIs, CT scans, and angiograms to create virtual 3D models of individual patients, the article reports. The models are immersive, enabling students to touch, patients to see, and surgeons to plan and practice upcoming operations with a previously unprecedented level of accuracy.

Dr. Gary Steinberg, the Chair of Neurosurgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine, is quoted in the article, stating “We can plan out how we can approach a tumor and avoid critical areas like the motor cortex or the sensory areas. Before, we didn’t have the ability to reconstruct it in three dimensions; we’d have to do it in our minds.”

In addition to a planning and practice tool, Stanford’s system also provides the opportunity for immersive learning. Represented by virtual avatars, the VR system enables instructors to take students along a tour of a patient’s brain, highlighting features such as arteries, tumors, and other bone or tissue sections for discussion. According to the article, students are also able to practice performing surgery in the virtual world.

Stanford, however, is not alone in using VR to help advance medicine.

Last year, CBS News reported on eight paralyzed individuals who regained partial muscle and bladder control after participating in a year-long research project that included VR walking simulations.

The paraplegic participants trained in VR simulations to prepare for using an exoskeleton that would respond to their brainwaves. While the ultimate goal of the project may have been astonishing in its own right, still more impressive were the project’s unexpected results. As a surprise side effect, researchers found that most of the participants experienced some level of neurological recovery after prolonged training.

Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, the project’s senior researcher and director of the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering told CBS News that “After one year of training, half of these patients had to be reclassified as partial paraplegic, because we could document voluntary movements from these patients.”

In addition to the partial neurological recovery, participants regained some bladder and bowel control.

“They were able for the first time in many years to control their bathroom routine,” Nicolelis told CBS News.

Despite the study’s positive results, however, some voice caution.

In an online article from August, 2016, Sciencemag.org sites Dr. Michael Fehlings, a Professor of Neurosurgery and head of the Spinal Program at the Toronto Western Hospital, University Health Network, commenting about Dr. Nicolelis’ findings, “The improvements seen are modest. It’s more exciting from a proof of concept standpoint.”

The article continues, however, suggesting that the treatment process – although likely not enough on its own – may one day be combined with other treatment strategies to produce significant benefits for those living with spinal damage.

While VR may one day play a significant role in the future of neurological recovery, recent research has already shown positive results treating those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other disorders and anxieties.

To that end, an NBC News “MACH” article sites Dr. JoAnn DiFede’s work. DiFede, the Director of the Program for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Studies at Cornell University, has conducted research using VR in exposure therapy to treat Vietnam and Iraq war veterans, as well as victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York who suffer from PTSD.

DiFede’s research has combined VR exposure therapy with D-Cycloserine, an antibiotic used to treat tuberculosis that has been shown to help facilitate the process of extinction of conditioned fear in testing trials. DiFede told NBC News that, “We had a 70 percent remission rate within six months.”

Social benefits of VR are also rising. For those with physical disabilities who may sometimes feel excluded from many activities or social equalities, VR may prove to be a significant aid, helping to enhance community.

For example, the AbleGamers Charity is a non-profit group for disabled video game enthusiasts whose members actively participate in many game events and competitions, such as this year’s EVO 2017. For many members, traditional video games have provided them with a platform for competition and a forum to cultivate a community. However, VR could mean the next step.

“Virtual reality will have a special meaning for disabled people,” said AbleGamers founder Mark Barlet during a 2016 interview with the Application Resource Center (RSC). “It means that for moments in time they can forget their disabilities and be immersed in the game.”

There are, however, concerns that accessibility limitations in the various VR platforms used for gaming may exclude the disabled community. In the same interview with RSC, Barlet voiced his apprehension, “I can’t say what it will do for my community. I am not 100 percent sold on what the tech will do for gaming, much less the disabled community.”

Regardless of such potential challenges, VR is speculated to have many educational benefits in the classroom.

Virtual reality could be an asset to those with mobility and sensory impairments.

According to an article on the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s (UTRGV’s) website, VR could be an asset to those with mobility and sensory impairments, providing users the opportunity to experience and practice moving in crowded and busy environments before physically entering them.

UTRGV’s article continues, positing that for those with learning and emotional disabilities, VR could help teach students academic as well as social skills, including personal interactions, basic economics, safety, and more. In addition, VR can already provide teachers the opportunity to take classes on “field trips” across the globe and through history without having to physically leave the classroom.

However, criticism of VR in the classroom includes concerns that the technology’s cost may preclude its widespread use in academia.

Although recent technological development and increased company competition have resulted in lower product prices, supplying an entire classroom with VR could incur costs of up to ten thousand dollars, according to one recent article posted to Edsourse.org, the website of an education reform organization dedicated to enhancing the learning success for California students.

Still more concern centers around what VR’s introduction into a classroom would mean for the educational process and a teacher’s role in it.

UTRGV’s article sites fears that the education process will simply become a game, and result in teachers coming to be entertainers.

Despite growing pains, VR is currently in use around the globe in many business and cultural sectors, including the National Theatre in London as part of its Immersive Storytelling Studio to transform how people experience story on stage; by the Ford Motor Company in its Research and Innovation Center to more efficiently prototype and experiment with future vehicle designs; and over 500 schools, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to provide virtual campus tours to prospective students.

Currently, VR is largely hailed by many current tech experts and financial investors as the significant up-and-coming innovation to propel humanity into the future. In fact, VR is expected to proliferate exponentially, revolutionizing all aspects of life, everything from daily business dealings to basic social interactions.

For information about other and emerging uses for VR, read Inc.’s, “20 Innovative Ways Companies Are Using VR,” and MIT Technology Review’s interview with Jessica Brillhart, Google’s leading VR filmmaker, in “Imagining the Future of VR at Google.”

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