Virtual reality fights multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s

Scientists at the Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU) have partnered up with colleagues from the Tomsk-based Siberian State Medical University (SSMU) to develop an innovative system for early-stage diagnostics of neurodegenerative diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and others. At the core of the new diagnostics is virtual reality; a person is immersed in a virtual environment for physicians to conduct functional tests. Researchers model the VR environment as they deem fit, and then register changes in the way the testee moves. The team hopes to complete preparations for project launch next year.

The new diagnostics is a joint effort that has brought together eight scientists, postgraduates and students from TPU and SSMU.

Problem in focus

«A lot of physiological systems are responsible for our sense of balance and movements. First of all, it’s the vestibular system that contributes to our spatial orientation; it’s also our muscles; it’s our vision helping us watch the horizon. This is a well-oiled system that works automatically. However, when a person develops a neurodegenerative disease such as Parkinson’s, the system fails," the TPU website quoted Ivan Tolmachov as saying. Mr. Tolmachov is a professor at TPU and associate professor at SSMU.

Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s-all these are neurodegenerative diseases. These are a group of slowly advancing, hereditary or acquired diseases of the nervous system. A common feature for these diseases is neurodegeneration, or progressive loss of nerve cells which leads to various neurological symptoms-primary to trouble with coordinated movements.

Scientists say that in the case of Parkinson’s, for instance, cells may start deteriorating as early as at the age of 30, but symptoms won’t grow noticeable until about 50.

That’s why researchers across the world are looking for effective and affordable methods of identifying the neurodegenerative diseases as early as possible.

«For a person to feel the loss of a function, about 80% of cells responsible for the function have to be lost-a point of no return for the human body. It’s so important to diagnose a case at early stages, when help is still possible," said Mr. Tolmachov, adding that instrument-aided diagnostics of the neurodegenerative diseases is still a problem area.

How it works

The system the TPU/SSMU team is developing consists of augmented reality glasses, a contactless movement sensor, and a mobile platform.

The developers use some of the already existing devices, such as the Google AR glasses and the Kinect contactless sensor controller. For a test, a person puts on the glasses and gets immersed in virtual reality where the skyline/horizon is changed. The movement sensor detects changes in his body’s position in 20 points. While a healthy person adapts easily to the virtual environment and keeps his balance, a neurodegenerative patient fails to do both.

Results and prospects

About 50 volunteers are said to have already undergone tests using the new system.

«In experiments, we saw how the virtual reality impacted people. Each test lasted about 10 minutes. The volunteers included both healthy people and confirmed neurodegenerative patients. The system helped us say how noticeably one’s current status differed from a norm. We now understand that different patients respond differently to a virtual environment. For example, Parkinson’s patients had their upper extremity tremor (rapid and uncontrolled movements of an arm-Editor’s note) revealed more manifestly," Mr. Tolmachov said.

He believes the project team will take another year to complete the research part of the effort, with clinical trials and an array of certification procedures to follow.

«It’s too premature to talk about the ultimate cost of the system, but it will surely be just a fraction of that of international analogs. Longer term, we have plans to use the system not only in diagnostics but also in the rehabilitation process," Mr. Tolmachov said.


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