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Virtual Reality Harnessed for Stroke Rehab

Peii Chen

Peii Chen, a researcher at the Kessler Foundation, holds a virtual realty headset. (Kessler Foundation)

Updated 7 May 2018. A rehabilitation research foundation and company specializing in immersive technologies are applying virtual reality to help treat spacial neglect, a common cognitive disability associated with stroke. The project bringing together Kessler Foundation in East Hanover, New Jersey and Virtualware in Bilbao, Spain is funded by National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, or NIDILRR, an agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Spatial neglect occurs in people with stroke, where one side of the brain loses awareness of people and objects happening to the corresponding side of the body. The condition often affects the right side of the brain, thus the individual misses out on actions or things occurring to the person’s left-hand side. The neglect can result in failure to orient or respond to personal space on that side, including body parts, with individuals often unaware of the problem.

Kessler Foundation supports studies of new rehabilitation technologies, but also conducts its own research and development including work on spacial neglect. The new project is led by Peii Chen, a neurorehabilitation scientist working with spatial cognition and its disorders after strokes and other brain injuries. Chen and fellow Kessler research scientist Denise Krch are developing a system known as VR-SRT with colleagues at Virtualware using virtual reality in a game-like environment to build better spacial awareness in people with spacial neglect.

VR-SRT aims to improve control of spatial attention and body-environment awareness with an immersive training process that Kessler Foundation says helps reset a person’s 3-D visual and motor map. The system plans to present stimuli through a head-mounted display, while also engaging the motor system that tracks the individual’s body position. VR-SRT is expected to benefit stroke therapy and recovery overall, since spacial neglect often disrupts basic skills such as reading, and increases risks of falls and injuries.

“The VR-SRT system is based on established theories of neurorehabilitation approaches for spatial neglect,” says Chen in a joint statement. “Making the treatment game-like will improve patient engagement and motivate the patients to complete treatment regime while receiving rehabilitative benefits.”

Virtualware brings to the project experience in applying virtual reality for rehabilitation. The company developed a virtual reality system for the Red Cross in Spain to assist individuals with homonymous hemianopsia, a cognitive condition similar to spatial neglect where people with brain injuries or stroke lose perception of one side of the visual world, even though their eyes may be functioning. Virtualware’s solution uses virtual reality in a game-type rehabilitation app with 6 types of 3-D environments. The company says a clinical trial is planned with 20 participants having homonymous hemianopsia.

The VR-SRT project is funded by a 3-year, $600,000 grant from NIDILRR, part of Administration for Community Living, an agency under the Department of Health and Human Services, announced in December 2017. The work calls for development and initial feasibility testing of a system “that is affordable and accessible in various healthcare settings, from clinics and hospitals to patients’ homes.”

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