When you strap on a virtual reality headset, your brain is instantly convinced that it’s in a real environment. The immersion is so complete that during tests at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, participants refused to step off a VR bridge even though they knew that the drop was 100-percent digital.
VR clearly messes with your mind, but can it also be used to heal it? A Swiss company called MindMaze recently won FDA approval to introduce a VR-based therapy in the United States that uses virtual avatars and gamification to trick a stroke patient’s brain into recovering faster.
Nearly 800,000 Americans a year suffer a stroke, which is caused by a blocked artery cutting off oxygen to parts of the brain. Without oxygen, brain cells in the affected region will die, often resulting in partial or full paralysis of one side of the body. Damage in the right hemisphere of the brain results in loss of movement on the left side, and vice versa.
If post-stroke rehabilitation is initiated quickly and effectively, some patients can recover movement in paralyzed limbs and facial muscles by rerouting neural pathways to undamaged parts of the brain. The best hope is to activate brain cells in the penumbra, the area directly surrounding the damaged cells. But how do you stimulate new brain activity if the corresponding limb is paralyzed?