Health scan: Virtual stroll through mall for immobile patients

Developer Debbie Rand says virtual reality program aids both the physical and cognitive rehabilitation of stroke victims.

virtual mall 88 (photo credit: )
virtual mall 88
(photo credit: )
Stroke victims and people suffering from weakness of their upper extremities may now be able to go shopping in malls thanks to a "virtual mall" developed by a University of Haifa Occupational Therapy doctoral student. Debbie Rand, who developed the system and investigated its effectiveness, said the virtual reality program aids both the physical and cognitive rehabilitation of the stroke victims, allowing them to "wander" through the mall, choose which store to enter, make purchases and check their basket of goods. She presented her virtual shopping mall at a recent conference on Virtual Reality in Rehabilitation at the university. The virtual mall was developed on a Canadian virtual reality system by Rand and Meir Shahar, a programmer with the university's Laboratory for Innovations in Technology (LIT). The user stands in front of a large TV screen, and a camera displays the person's image within the virtual environment. "The patient operates the environment by movements of his or her body, and this encourages him to use his body and hands," Rand explains. "The patient sees himself and receives feedback about his movements without the need to put on any accessories. These advantages," she believes, "strengthen and improve the movement and functioning of people who have experienced neurological or orthopedic injuries." Rand developed the tool under the guidance of Prof. Tamar Weiss of the University of Haifa's occupational therapy department who heads LIT, and Prof. Noomi Katz of the Hebrew University's School of Occupational Therapy. The doctoral candidate praised virtual reality as an occupational therapy tool for evaluating and treating people who have difficulty in planning and problem solving because of the weakness of their upper extremities. Until now, seven stroke patients have been "treated" with the virtual mall. Their proficiency with the virtual mall, she continued, improved significantly after treatment. DIABETES VACCINE'S MOLECULAR MECHANISM REVEALED The molecular mechanism for an experimental vaccine aimed at preventing Type 1 diabetes has been revealed by a team of researchers led by Prof. Irun Cohen at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. The new findings are expected to help amplify the effectiveness of the vaccine, which is currently in advanced clinical trials. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own insulin-producing pancreatic cells, reducing and ultimately eliminating the production of insulin - a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other foods into energy. Several years ago, Cohen and colleagues developed a vaccine that arrests the progression of Type 1 diabetes in lab animals. They had discovered that a particular protein called HSP60, or even only a small fragment of it - the peptide designated p277 - is able to shut down the autoimmune response causing this disorder. The vaccine is currently being tested in Europe and the US, but its precise mechanism has until now been unknown. "When translating these findings into a practical vaccine, we knew enough about the mechanism to understand that this protein is able to cause a decrease in the immune response, but how it actually works eluded us," says Cohen. In a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, the scientists have managed to identify the exact immune cells that p277 acts upon and its mechanism of action. Autoimmune diseases occur when certain T cells in the immune system attack the body's own tissues. The scientists discovered that p277 directs the activity of the immune system in two ways. First, it steps up the activities of a different type of T cell that regulates the amount of potentially harmful T cells available. In addition, T cells treated with p277 cause the delinquent T cells to secrete anti-inflammatory substances instead of the inflammation-causing ones that they usually make which lead to autoimmune disease. This double action of the peptide weakens the damaging activities of the immune response further. The scientists also showed that in order to activate this response, p277 must be bound to the receptor TLR-2, which is found on the cell walls of the regulatory T cells. "These findings are important, as it means that by identifying the molecular activity of p277 with such precision we can copy nature's own system in regulating the immune system and therefore help to boost the immune system in preventing the destruction of insulin-producing pancreatic cells," says Cohen, who worked with postdoctoral fellow Dr. Alexandra Zanin-Zhorov, the late Prof. Ofer Lider, Dr. Liora Cahalon, postdoctoral fellow Guy Tal and Raanan Margalit. IDF HEADGEAR NOT SUITED TO SUN The Israel Defense Forces' beret is not suited to Israeli summers, the Israel Cancer Association has told Chief of Staff Rav Aluf Dan Halutz. ICA director-general Miri Ziv urged the IDF to provide soldiers, especially those who spend a lot of time outdoors, with wide-brimmed hats to protect them against the sun. Soldiers wearing dress uniforms are not permitted to wear hats, and their berets remain on their shoulders, while those wearing second-class (work) uniforms are given various types of hats, usually a baseball-style cap. Other armies, such as that of the US and Australia, provide wide-brimmed hats for soldiers in sunny areas. Baseball caps do not protect the face, ears and neck from melanoma, the deadly skin cancer that results from exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays, Ziv said. In the past, the ICA had raised the problem but nothing had been done. Ziv said she was trying again in the hope that protective hats will be purchased for soldiers and new orders would be issued to require soldiers to wear them outdoors whether they are wearing dress or work uniforms. Skin Cancer Awareness Week, an ICA initiative, with free skin checks offered in health fund clinics around the country, was held recently.