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In routing around paralysis, researchers may have found an amazing way to treat it

The researchers think that their findings can be attributed to two basic facts. First, their study lasted longer than most others, following eight subjects for a year’s worth of their Walk Again Neurorehabilitation program and taking a detailed accounting of neural health before and after. Second, their regimen of step-wise training, including a virtual reality component, seems to be crucial to inducing the neural sprouting effect.

One of the keys to the virtual reality portion of the setup is the haptic feedback, in which the patient gets to “feel” some physical sensation whenever their VR avatar interacts with the world. So when their virtua-feet touch the virtua-grass, for instance, they feel a buzz from the study’s “tactile shirt,” which is studded with little vibrating motors. It might not be the right spot on the body, but after a while it seems the brain begins to accept the visual-haptic association at face value.

After the VR component, patients graduate to a partial exoskeleton on a treadmill. For obvious reasons, you don’t want people walking around the world, or even a lab, until they’ve mastered walking in a straight line. They are suspended in a harness so they can’t fall over, and slowly acquire the nuanced control and balance needed to take on real locomotive independence.

Finally, after months of hard work, the exoskeleton comes out. It’s the same model that was used to kick off the 2014 World Cup. Having just reported these brand new results, there’s currently no indication of just how important this final step is to the regeneration observed in patients’ EEG readings.

We should hope that the virtual reality portion of the rehab program is a major source of the effect, though, since a VR treatment could be applied to help ease partial paralysis that could never justify an insurance claim for a neurally controlled exoskeleton. There’s just a finite number of people who can be helped by big stompy robot legs, incredible though they are — but an Oculus hooked up to a PC? That’s the sort of thing every hospital could afford and, more to the point, most patients, too.

In general, no purely behavioral treatment is going to fix complete or extensive paralysis. But such an approach could potentially be combined with cutting edge techniques in stimulating neural regrowth with drugs. It could be necessary in fact, since simply telling a neuron to grow is different than telling it how or where to grow. VR and other rehab procedures could provide that direction, helping paralyzed people direct neural growth potential and regenerate previously damaged pathways.

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