USC collaboration to test VR for stroke treatment

The Neural Plasticity and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory is in the process of creating ways for people to go through brain rehabilitation with virtual reality technology. Photo courtesy of VRSC.

The Neural Plasticity and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory at USC is exploring the intersection of virtual reality and neuroscience with a new program that aims to help stroke victims.

The laboratory aims to implement VR technology in health care under the acronym REINVENT, according to Sook-Lei Liew, head of the NPNL.

Liew’s laboratory is partnering with USC Institute of Creative Technologies’ MxR lab for the REINVENT project, which focuses on virtual reality and stroke rehabilitation.

“In all areas of human interaction with any kind of sophisticated technology, you want to develop things can amplify human functioning and learning,” said Albert Rizzo, who works at the MxR lab.

The MxR lab is  part of USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies and hosts a variety of research at the forefront of virtual development, with focuses on optical physical therapy and game apps.

Rizzo explained that in using VR as a medium for rehabilitation or as a tool for data collection, there are three measurements that must be considered.

“First is the patient’s self-report — what do they think of the treatment and how do they think they are responding [for example],” Rizzo said. “Next is behavior, which is the measurement of the patient’s interactions before and after the treatment. Lastly, we can analyze body signals such as heart rate, electroencephalogram patterns or measurements of internal states.”

Oftentimes, the treatment required for stroke recovery is tedious and frustrating for patients, Rizzo said. Since improvement is infrequent and made in small increments, the ability to distract the patient during rehabilitation and show them data afterward is advantageous.

“The best tool VR currently provides us with is an environment in which we can control the stimulus,” Rizzo said. “We see how placing a patient in a game-like environment focuses their attention and allows us to motivate the patient with quantifiable results.”

Liew aimed to detect when the patient thinks about moving their hand and create the illusion that they actually are, Rizzo explained.

At the time of publication, Liew was traveling and was not available for comment.

The application of VR to current technologies is as important as understanding the approach of those methods for stroke patients, according to Julia Anglin, a research lab supervisor at NPNL who works closely with Liew. 

“While stroke survivors suffered damage to the brain, there is still activity in the motor cortex,” Anglin said. “We’re interested in building the connection back between the brain and the muscles.”

The REINVENT project aims to replace a stroke survivor’s arm with a virtual one, so that the brain sends signals to the muscles it rebuilds. In the process, the role of VR is to give the embodiment aspect imitating the feeling and feedback from one’s own arm.

Anglin has conducted her own VR research in the past and found differences in the learning mechanisms participants used when conducting a motor function normally as opposed to with virtual reality.

When using advanced screening tools, Anglin said researchers can study the brain and create more dynamic stimuli using VR.

“These stimuli tell us more about what the brain is doing, and can help us determine what parts of VR are most important during decision-making or interactive processes like stroke rehabilitation,” said David Krum, a computer scientist at the Institute for Creative Technologies.

Rizzo, Anglin and Krum all agree that VR has a bright future, as exploration of VR’s practical features has only become a focus in the past few years.

As far as REINVENT goes, Anglin explained that they are just starting to measure the efficacy of VR among stroke survivors. While the data hasn’t fully been analyzed yet, she believes the program will continue for a long time. REINVENT is in the process of obtaining new grants.   

“Our first grant was based on creating a device that was practical and affordable, and we developed the hardware using open software in collaboration with the ICT,” Anglin said. “So, we suspect this is going to be a long haul.”

Krum said that some of the same problems and applications seen in VR today are similar to what the researchers have been working on in the past, in fields like medicine or social communication.

The challenge lies in generating VR content and knowing what goes into developing it, Krum said.