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Investment in Augmented and Virtual reality projects is rapidly increasing, with Sony’s PlayStation VR and Avantis’ Class VR currently taking the gaming and education worlds by storm.

It should come as no surprise then, that Virtual Reality is now becoming more of a real-life reality across a number of industries and sectors globally – including healthcare in particular, with more and more high profile developments emerging every day.

With these incredible innovations in mind, here are 4 of the most inspirational and cutting edge developments coming out of the VR and healthcare crossover.

Performing operations wearing VR technology

Perhaps one of the most innovative advancements in VR technology is coming from the world of surgical VR. Platforms such as Medical Realities, EchoPixel and STAR are aiming to help train medical students, surgical trainees, surgeons, and healthcare professionals, with the goal of allowing immersive learning through a collection of VR surgical operations and Augmented Realities.

Just last year in April the first operation was streamed live in 360 video through the Medical Realities website. Viewers who signed up could view the operation on various platforms, giving them just a small idea of what the future of medical education could hold. Since then, several high-profile hospitals and organisations have adopted various VR technologies to advance their educational progresses and healthcare practices.

Whilst many Virtual Reality devices are currently focusing on gaming and education, there is no denying that these devices will soon be a staple part of many medical education and hospital establishments.

Helping adults with Autism improve social skills

The potential of medical Virtual Reality is not limited to educating medical professionals, an example of this is seen by Dr Daniel Yang’s ‘Virtual Reality social cognition training programme’.

The ‘Virtual Reality social cognition training programme’ aims to improve social skills in adults who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  Adults are able to engage through Virtual Reality in a situation that could, in reality, be uncomfortable for them to encounter. These situations per ‘Autism Speaks’ can be anything from ‘a job interview to a new neighbour or a blind date’. Socially acceptable behaviour as well as social skills are both things that Dr Yang has been practicing with these adults, and the outcomes are truly remarkable and perhaps beyond any existing ASD helping mechanisms, as shown in the diagram below.

After the virtual reality training, young adults with autism showed increased activation in brain regions associated with social understanding. (Credit: Autism Speaks)

J Autism Dev Disord claims that ‘these findings suggest that the virtual reality platform is a promising tool for improving social skills, cognition, and functioning in autism.’  If this is in fact the case, then the use of Virtual Reality in aiming to help individuals with mental health disorders may be something that more organizations will be aiming to bring aboard.

Here in the UK, treatment of children and adults with ASD can be long and in many cases to little effect.  However, incorporating the research carried out by Dr. Daniel Yang amongst similar research into the field, could see countless benefits and rapidly begin to deliver better patient outcomes for people who suffer from ASD.

Life-changing rehabilitation helping Paraplegic Patients walk again

Research led by Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis has found that through using a ‘brain controlled’ system, including virtual reality and an exoskeleton, 8 paraplegic patients have begun to regain muscle control and sensations within their lower limbs.

The project, known as the ‘Walk Again Neurorehabilitation (WA-NR)’, had a team of clinical staff, engineers, neuroscientists, and roboticists follow the 8 patients who were suffering from chronic spinal cord injury.  Over the 12 months the patients were involved in almost 2000 hours of ‘brain training’ that would use VR and exoskeleton technology to stimulate control of their legs.


As soon as 7 months into the project, several of the patients were recorded as showing signs of change in their condition, which was followed by doctors making the decision to change half of the groups diagnosis from complete to partial paralysis at the year mark.

Take a look at the video below that shows the unique, and to some extent unexpected, findings of Miguel Nicolelis’ research into using this Virtual Reality and ‘brain control’.

Miguel concludes that he ‘thinks these are very unique findings which suggest the hypothesis that the brain machine interfaces in the future may not be just an assisted technology to restore mobility but the combination of brain machine interfaces with other therapies may lead to a whole new therapy’.


Providing support to military related PTSD

Finally, another way Virtual Reality is helping people who have mental disorders, is through ‘Bravemind’. Bravemind is an interactive Virtual Reality software that is being used in hospitals and the military to treat returning soldiers and veterans who have developed Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

One of the most popular ways of treating PTSD in recent years has been graduated exposure therapy, which involves the affected reliving a traumatic event to access and process the emotions that are associated with that event.

However, Dr. Skip Rizzo of USC claims that, ‘One of the challenges associated with this treatment is the reliance on patients to be able to effectively imagine their traumatic experiences. Many patients, however, are unwilling or unable to do this. In fact, this very tendency to avoid the cues and reminders of the trauma is one of the cardinal symptoms of PTSD.’

Therefore, Bravemind overcomes this challenge by providing a Virtual Reality encapsulating the traumatic event, giving a way around this ‘avoidance tendency’ that the suffers experience. The software mainly achieves this through creating ‘multisensory immersive environments’, however, also adds an extra dimension over most VR technologies by allowing healthcare providers to control and document patient responses to build a more in depth report of the outcomes.

For me, the various medical solutions emerging from use of Virtual Reality already clearly shows us that the technology is key to the industry developing and thriving, therefore the question is not will healthcare organisations be using the technology, but when will they begin using the technology?

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