How Virtual Reality is Changing Medicine
Jesse Levine was born with a congenital heart defect where the valves in her heart were reversed. It’s a serious medical condition—she has had a pacemaker since she was two years old—that has required constant monitoring from doctors as she’s grown older. Like most parents, her father Steve wanted to learn all he could about her condition. But unlike most parents, Steve Levine has spent years developing solutions that could help doctors treat patients like his daughter.
“Being a lifelong patient you realize that a lot of people don’t have a lot of involvement in their medical care,” Jesse explains, “My dad got really involved and the doctors opened up to him because he’s an engineer.”
Steve has worked for years at Dassault Systèmes, helping companies model real-world scenarios inside the computer.
“Everyone sees cars being crashed on TV and they see crash dummies,” Steve explains, “And there’s an assumption that when automotive companies build cars, they build prototypes and they put the dummies in, see what happens and then they tweak the design. And they used to do that years ago. But now they do that all on the computer because we can actually simulate exactly what happens to the car down to the smallest rivet on the computer. Because we understand the detailed physics of what happens.”
After years of helping companies model countless scenarios to deliver better products, Steve began to wonder if the same could be done for the human body. Steve’s insight was a simple, but profound one: the human body is just a more complicated machine of which we explore different parts. So why can’t we create a virtual heart?
“As an engineer, we take things apart,” Steve explains matter-of-factly. “With the human body, we didn’t build it, but there’s no reason we can’t understand it. We just need a different set of tools.” The result of that idea became the Dassault Systèmes Living Heart Project, where Steve now serves as the Executive Director. Their team collaborated with doctors and scientists from around the country to create a generic virtual heart.
Touring the facility is like stepping into an episode of The Magic School Bus. By slipping on a pair of VR goggles, visitors can be transported inside a realistic model of a human heart.
And while there are plenty of applications for a generic heart, researchers hope that one day they might be able to create virtual clones of your specific organs, allowing doctors to model how a disease might progress or which treatment might have the best chance of success.
It’s an interesting moment for virtual reality. As virtual and augmented reality continue to develop and find mainstream acceptance, the popular use cases are often games and entertainment. But as the Living Heart project shows, there is a steady emergence of medical technologies that use virtual reality to heal people.
Helping Paraplegics Learn to Walk Again
A study from the Walk Again Project (WAP) showed that virtual reality could help paraplegics regain sensation and eventually limited motor function in their legs.
Participants first learned to control the legs of a virtual avatar. Researchers recorded their brain waves as they walked around the virtual environment to learn how their thoughts translated into movement. Participants were then put into an exoskeleton suit. As they thought about walking, the suit would read their brain waves and begin moving the subject’s legs. Impressive by itself, the researchers were shocked to discover that every participant was able to “feel sensation again in the pelvic region and lower limbs, and also learned to control some of their muscles, their bladder and bowel function for the first time in many years.”
While there are a whole host of other promising technologies (from brain implants to stem cells to exoskeleton suits) to restore lost function for parapalegics and quadrapalegics, researchers are hopeful this approach will be yet another avenue to help people regain lost mobility.
Combatting PTSD with Virtual Battlefields
Researchers at the University of California’s Institute for Creative Technology have developed a unique treatment for PTSD by repurposing video game software and virtual reality headsets.
Patients are immersed into the simulation while a nearby clinician asks them questions throughout the session and controls all aspects of the experience—from the location, mission, time of day, even individual sounds and smells.
Even though the graphics are relatively rudimentary, the impact is profound. As a 2005 review in Nature Neuroscience explained, “You know that the events you see, hear and feel are not real events in the physical meaning of the word, yet you find yourself thinking, feeling and behaving as if the place were real, and as if the events were happening … From a cognitive point of view, you know that there is nothing there, but, both consciously and unconsciously, you respond as if there is.” And there might even be a benefit to the low-res visuals, keeping them from feeling “too real” and further traumatizing vulnerable patients.
The approach utilizes exposure therapy—a well-researched and well-regarded therapeutic treatment that requires patients identify a traumatic moment and repeatedly describe it to a clinician until it no longer has the same debilitating emotional effect. The approach, formally called prolonged exposure therapy, was pioneered by Dr. Edna Foa of the University of Pennsylvania.
As Bloomberg reported, a typical treatment “runs for 10 weekly sessions, with a follow-up three months later. A more intense version runs twice a week for five weeks. Either way, the results suggest that participants’ stress symptoms, including depression, decrease by as much as 80%. In cases where it doesn’t work, veterans are referred back to conventional therapy.”
One recent study found that veterans who completed at least eight sessions saw a 40% reduction in PTSD symptoms (across the treatment group), but nearly one-fourth dropped out prematurely. More research is underway from the Pentagon which “has committed $12 million to a six-year clinical study comparing Bravemind’s effectiveness with other treatments, a key hurdle to wider adoption.”
Conquering Your Fears Through Virtual Simulations
Another promising medical application of virtual reality is to tackle phobias. One fascinating—or horrifying, depending on your relative level of arachnophobia—example is a simulation called “Spider World”.
Participants slip on a headset and enter a tame, virtual environment. Initially, no spiders are present. When ready, participants can choose to advance to the next level with a single spider. Each subsequent level has more and more spiders. If the level becomes too much, participants can retreat to the previous level. The goal is to help people feel in control of the experience and to face their fears through immersion.
While the application in medicine is still in its early stages, people like Steve Levine are confident that virtual reality holds the promise of better care for millions of people.