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Neuroplasticity through virtual and augmented reality

Written by - Sai Mulpuru

Virtual and mixed reality have been very popular terms of this decade, and we now see the technology occupying the fields of gaming, entertainment, immersive experiences and many more. Not to mention the least mentioned application, virtual reality in neuro rehabilitation of stroke victims. Neuroplasticity allows your brain to rewire functions from damaged areas of the brain over to new, healthy parts of the brain. The more repetitions you perform of a task, the more your brain will rewire itself. Empathy is a vital parameter when it comes to rehabilitation. Empathizing with oneself is the key to motivation and self-confidence. 

Dr. V.S. Ramachandran has long ago, in 1980 invented a device called the mirror box to ease the pain from phantom limbs. Optimizing VR content could also mean experimenting with other sensory stimuli beyond visuals. Similar concepts have been ever since in use through technology integrated experimental setups. Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita is a well-known scientist and neuro physiologist who invented devices for the blind to see and deaf to hear, the process being based on the concept of sensory substitution, as in when one sense is absent the world can still be understood by sending information in a different form to one and more of the other working senses. Neuroscientist and author Dr. David Eagleman has also invented a vest that can help the deaf people hear to the world around them. These are some examples of applications of augmented reality in assistive technology for the disabled. 

The NeuroRehabLab is an interdisciplinary research group of the University of Madeira, Spain, headed by Dr. Sergi Bermudez that investigates at the intersection of technology, neuroscience and clinical practice to find novel solutions to increase the quality of life of those with special needs. The Serious gaming lab headed by Dr. Kavita Vemuri at International Institute of Information Technology at Hyderabad also has collaborated with Anurag neuro rehabilitation centre, LV Prasad Eye Institute, and are doing clinical trials with games that are designed to rehabilitate patients with paralyzed limbs, lazy eye and more. Companies like NeuroRehabVR are taking the exercises to home, and providing fully assisted gamified training sessions that are more immersive to the patient than a rehabilitation specialist actually telling what to do. 

The therapists are able to create a safe, effective and controlled environment inside a VR headset, it also being a safer and less expensive option. Technological breakthroughs have always taken their own time and courses of action on the society. Though it might be a while before VR fully replaces traditional diagnostic techniques or the proverbial therapist’s couch, it will certainly take on an increasingly important role in the treatment and diagnosis of mental health and brain disorders.

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