Tue May 12 2015
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Virtual Reality Therapy Wows Stroke Victims

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When it comes to virtual reality (VR), one nagging question remains constant…

Is it just a cool, niche technology, or is it the next truly disruptive digital platform?

The question promises to intensify, as three new headsets, including one by Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, come to market in the next 12 months. And, of course, as we dream up newer and even more innovative applications for 3-D, computer-generated VR simulation.

For example, futurist Peter Diamandis swears that VR will soon disrupt the real estate market and eradicate the need for realtors if we can allow homebuyers to “virtually” visit properties. (I disagree, but we’ll save that for another column.)

Meanwhile, The Washington Post revealed yesterday how retailers from The North Face to Lowe’s (LOW) intend to use VR experiences to lure shoppers back into stores. (Again, I have my doubts about this application.)

But here’s one application in this fledgling space that’s anything but a gimmick. One with significant real-life benefits…

Virtual Reality: Just What the Doctor Ordered

Traditionally, VR is associated with videogames.

Indeed, analysts at BI Intelligence say gaming applications are the driving force behind a surge in headset sales from 825,000 units this year to over 26 million in 2020.

But if you think VR is a relatively “new” technology, you’d be off the mark. It’s actually been around for more than 50 years. However, due to low image quality and high costs, it’s mostly been relegated to high-end or niche applications, such as those in the military, or flight simulators.

Not anymore.

As image quality improves and costs plummet (which is unfolding as we speak), I’m convinced that VR usage is going to surge in another “old-school” sector – healthcare.

In fact, a number of tech startups are working on low-cost VR devices to help treat patients suffering from traumatic events. Things like post-traumatic stress disorder, strokes, and even amputations.

The reason there’s so much interest in healthcare-related applications for VR is simple.

As Professor Richard Lindley noted at the recent European Stroke Organization Conference, “Disability causes poverty, and poverty leads to greater disability.”

Indeed. And VR holds the promise of combating this vicious cycle. That’s where MindMaze comes in…

MindMaze: Accelerating Recovery

Based in Switzerland, the highly promising three-year-old company integrates neuroscience with VR to help victims of stroke, amputation, or spinal injuries regain motor function faster than with traditional physical therapy.

More specifically, MindMaze uses a motion-sensing camera to project a patient’s avatar onto VR goggles. Then, with the help of as many as 32 electrodes on the patient’s head, he/she can command his or her virtual arm or leg to move to perform a task – for example, lifting a glass or kicking a ball.

Essentially, MindMaze “tricks” a patient’s brain into re-activating damaged neurons, or activating new neurons to take over for the damaged ones.

MindMaze Founder and CEO Tej Tadi says preliminary clinical results suggest the technology can improve motor function by as much as 35% in as little as three weeks.

A significant body of evidence supports MindMaze’s early findings, too. According to a Cochrane Review, which summarizes medical research for the healthcare sector, there have been 37 VR studies involving 1,019 stroke patients. Of them, 12 trials tested whether VR therapy resulted in improved ability to use one’s arm… four trials tested whether VR therapy resulted in improved walking ability… and eight trials tested the impact of VR therapy on improving everyday activities (i.e., showering and dressing).

Cochrane’s conclusions?

“We found evidence that the use of virtual reality and interactive videogaming may be beneficial in improving upper limb function and ADL function when used as an adjunct to usual care (to increase overall therapy time) or when compared with the same dose of conventional therapy.”

15 Million Patients Waiting

Obviously, more clinical analysis needs to be done before VR therapies go mainstream. But it’s only a matter of time before that happens. Why?

  • The early results are promising enough to justify further testing.
  • The costs to try out the technology aren’t prohibitive. Hospitals or rehabilitation centers can rent MindMaze’s hardware and software package for as little as $ 2,500 per month. Three in Switzerland have already done so, says Tadi.
  • A large need exists. Strokes are the leading cause of serious long-term disability, impacting nearly 800,000 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worldwide, that figure jumps to 15 million, based on World Heart Federation estimates.

The Power of VR

This is a perfect example of technology jumping into another area to improve existing methods.

For stroke victims, traditional physical therapy won’t go away, of course. But as you can see, there’s an incredible number of people who could benefit from VR therapy, too, in order to combat paralysis, speech problems, and cognitive confusion.

And that’s what makes MindMaze so compelling.

So far, the company has raised $ 8.5 million from angel investors and through Swiss government grants. And it’s preparing to submit its system for Food and Drug Administration approval this summer, too.

As for videogamers, who enjoy the more realistic, immersive experience that VR provides, well, MindMaze has them covered, too.

Earlier this month, the firm also unveiled MindLeap, which leverages its neurotechnology in the gaming market by offering the first thought-powered VR system.

Yes… you read that right. No need for controllers. Just think it, and it’ll be done on screen.

Bottom line: While VR is still an emerging technology with plenty of hype, there’s no doubt that it holds enormous and legitimate potential in the healthcare sector. And MindMaze is one of the most promising startups I’m tracking in the space. So put it on your watch list, too.

Ahead of the tape,

Louis Basenese

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