A new tool incorporating virtual reality is demonstrating early success in helping people with Parkinson’s disease improve their balance and potentially decrease falls, researchers report.

The virtual reality system is designed to give patients a safe space to hone their muscle control and balance. Patients walk on a treadmill while stepping over virtual objects that appear before them. If they are successful in one round, the objects become larger in the next round.

After practicing with the system for 6 weeks, people with Parkinson’s disease showed improved obstacle negotiation and balance along with more confidence navigating around obstacles in their path, notes a media release from Experimental Biology.

“The primary advantage is that they can encounter multiple obstacles and terrains while a safe environment is maintained using equipment such as a fall restraint tether,” says K. Bo Foreman, PT, PhD, associate professor and director of the Motion Capture Core Facility at the University of Utah, in the release.

“Participants enjoyed the experience and thought it was fun, not just exercise. They liked training and challenging themselves without the fear of falling.”

Foreman presented the research recently at the American Association of Anatomists annual meeting during the 2019 Experimental Biology meeting in Orlando, Fla.

The researchers tested their training system in 10 patients with Parkinson’s disease who used it for three 30-minute sessions a week for six weeks. After the program, participants showed significant improvements in their ability to negotiate over large and small boxes, better balance, and a wider range of motion in the hip and ankle.

“We are hopeful that this improved performance relates to decreased falls in their everyday life,” Foreman states. “Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disease, and anything we can do to impact the progression is a step in the right direction.”

The team tested their program in the University of Utah’s Treadport, a CAVE-like virtual environment with a locomotion interface allowing digital scene projection across multiple walls and the floor.

While the initial test did not include any patients who did not undergo the virtual reality training or any people without Parkinson’s disease for comparison, as a next step the team plans to investigate how their outcomes compare to studies in which Parkinson’s patients have undergone traditional training programs or none at all, per the release.

[Source(s): Experimental Biology, Science Daily]