Researchers suggest that virtual reality could help detect balance impairments in elderly people—which could lead to falls—as well as help reverse those impairments and perhaps prevent falls.

The study, from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, was published in Scientific Reports.

In the study, a research team led by Jason R. Franz, PhD, assistant professor in the Joint UNC/NC State department of biomedical engineering, used a virtual reality system to create the visual illusion of a loss of balance while participants walked on a treadmill.

While recording the participants’ movements while they were out of balance, Franz’s team was able to determine how the participants’ muscles responded to the loss of balance.

“We were able to identify the muscles that orchestrate balance corrections during walking,” Franz says, in a media release from University of North Carolina Health Care. “We also learned how individual muscles are highly coordinated in preserving walking balance. These things provide an important roadmap for detecting balance impairments and the risk of future falls.”

“As each person walked, we added lateral oscillations to the video imagery, so that the visual environment made them feel as if they were swaying back and forth, or falling,” Franz adds. “The participants know they aren’t really swaying, but their brains and muscles automatically try to correct their balance anyway.”

In response to the loss of balance illusion, the participants took wider and shorter steps, and swayed their head and trunk further sideways with each step.

The variability of these measures—their tendency to change from one step to the next—increased much more strikingly. Electrodes attached to the skin of the subjects also revealed coordinated electrical activity among the muscles that control postural sway and foot placement, including the gluteus medius, external oblique, and erector spinae, per the release.

“These findings give us important insights into the detailed mechanisms of walking balance control,” Franz states.

Franz believes also that the data could help provide key reference measurements that could be used in future studies to detect balance impairments before they cause people to fall.

In addition, Franz and his research team are investigating the potential of virtual reality as a physical therapy tool to teach balance-impaired people how to improve their balance and avoid falls.

“Early work in our lab suggests it’s possible to use these visual perturbations to train a person’s balance control system to respond better to imbalance that occurs in daily living,” Franz concludes.

[Source(s): University of North Carolina Health Care, Science Daily]