Sourasky researchers explain how virtual reality helps prevent falls by Parkinson’s patients

The use of innovative technology may provide an avenue for treatment of diseases.

Psychology building in Bar-Ilan University 390 (photo credit: Avishai Teicher via the PikiWiki - Israel free ima)
Psychology building in Bar-Ilan University 390
(photo credit: Avishai Teicher via the PikiWiki - Israel free ima)
Using virtual reality headsets while walking on a treadmill creates a specific change in the brain activity of Parkinson’s patients that dramatically reduces the number of falls, according to researchers at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center.
Virtual reality uses special, sealed goggles worn over the eyes and earphones to add sound to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations in a virtual or imaginary environment. A person using virtual reality equipment is able to look 360 degrees around the artificial world and even interact with virtual objects or individuals.
Studies conducted at Sourasky last year found that Parkinson’s patients who participated in walking training on a treadmill in a virtual-reality environment experienced a significantly greater decline in the number of falls than those walking on a treadmill without virtual reality.
Now, a study just published in the prestigious journal Neurology by Sourasky’s Center for the Study of Movement, Cognition and Mobility in the neurology department provides the explanation for the dramatic decrease in falls among patients using virtual-reality systems.
Using functional MRI, the researchers found that there is a change in the pattern of brain activity in patients who walked in a virtual-reality environment that could not be achieved without the headsets.
Parkinson’s is a chronic, incurable degenerative disorder of the central nervous system whose symptoms begin with tremors, rigidity, slowness of movement and difficulty walking. Cognitive problems usually follow.
Sourasky researchers Dr. Anat Mirelman, Dr. Inbal Meidan and Prof. Jeff Hausdorff demonstrated that patients with the neurological disease who participated in virtual-walkway training demonstrated greater improvement in walking speed while overcoming obstacles. The improvement was consistent with their brain activity changes, which included decreased activity in brain regions responsible for thinking processes, planning and management functions.
In an article they published a year ago in The Lancet, Mirelman and her colleagues showed that cognitive-motor training involving walking on a virtual-reality treadmill, including overcoming obstacles, resulted in a significant drop in the number of falls that was greater than walking on a non-cognitive treadmill.
On the other hand, they said patients who participated in motor training on the treadmill showed a change in the pattern of brain activity in the posterior area of the brain, which is responsible for balance and coordination. These results led the researchers to conclude that the type of training resulted in specific changes in the brain action pattern of Parkinson’s patients.
“Our findings reinforce the hypothesis that cognitive-motor training creates plastic changes in specific brain networks, reducing the need for compensatory mechanisms and enabling more efficient functioning. They have important implications for choosing the type of training that is appropriate for different patients to improve walking and reduce falling. Even in the presence of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, exercise can change the brain in a positive way and improve their daily functioning,” Mirelman said.