Virtual treatment of real diseases

Virtual reality goggles are commonly associated with entertainment. And yet there are solutions that enable virtualization and that are used successfully in design studios, in education as well as in medicine. This time we will look at the medical branch of VR.

Maybe some of you remember the great animated series “Once Upon a Time… Life.” The French cartoon by Albert Barillé allowed children and adults to learn about the nuances of human biology, anatomy, the basics of medicine, etc. We can say that thanks to this series, we could move to a world hidden for an outside viewer and our natural senses. Meanwhile, thanks to virtual reality, we are actually able to overcome the barriers and the limitations of our senses and enter the world of medicine of the future in which virtual reality will be on the agenda.

Already today, there are solutions used in medicine that facilitate the treatment process or significantly improve the effectiveness of specific therapies. The research company Grand View Research estimates the value of the global market for AR and VR solutions in medicine at 568.7 million USD. The estimated annual growth rate (CAGR) for this market is 29.1%. Thus, in 2025, the value of the AR and VR market in the medical industry is expected to exceed 5 billion USD. Such rapid growth is driven by the dynamic development of AR / VR equipment and software. The use of AR / VR solutions in many areas of medicine is also important. Virtualization is already used in surgery, diagnostics, psychotherapy, rehabilitation and to relieve pain.

VR in psychology and psychotherapy

One of the amazing achievements associated with VR is the treatment of mental disorders. This particularly applies to soldiers returning from areas covered by military operations, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as people affected by various phobias. It turns out that in their case therapy using virtual reality really works.

Another application of virtual reality in psychotherapy is the treatment of so-called phantom pain. What is the phantom pain? This is an impression of feeling the pain of an amputated limb or other parts of the body removed surgically or lost as a result of an accident. Patients suffering from phantom pain experience real pain of something that is not there. Maybe it sounds absurd, but remember that the impression of pain is carried out in the brain. For some patients, the brain stores previously created neural connections between a non-existing limb, which was the source of pain and the relevant parts of the cerebral cortex. The brain is, however, malleable and can change its structure in the literal, physical sense. Thanks to virtual reality, patients can suggest situations in which they regain control over a non-existing limb, and thus the source of phantom pain can disappear completely. Another thing is that although VR is very effective in the treatment of phantom pain. Professor Vilayanur Ramachandrad, one of the world’s greatest neurologists, has shown that sometimes even a simple mirror is enough to treat phantom pain. Everything is happening in our brain.

Another example of the use of VR techniques in psychotherapy is the treatment of all kinds of phobias. Also, in this case, the therapy involves exposing the patient to an object, a phenomenon or a situation that causes him irrational fear. Obviously, the level of exposure is strictly controlled, it is not about torturing the patient, but to overcome the fear over time by making the patient accustomed to the stimulus that causes him fear. Controlled therapy conditions affect the patient’s awareness. The person being treated realizes that the environment she observes is virtual reality, which in turn increases the sense of security. The fact of the control and the awareness of the unreality of the observed world causes that the patient is able to gradually and boldly face the difficult situations.

The above video is an example of the use of VR technique in the treatment of acrophobia, i.e. fear of heights. It should be remembered that acrophobia is an extreme case of altitude anxiety. This is important because the fear of heights has remained as such in us (and many other terrestrial animals) through evolution as an innate protective mechanism against fall from a great height. And most of us will not have problems with driving a glass elevator to the upper floors of the skyscraper, but people suffering from acrophobia are often unable to even get into such an elevator. This condition can, however, be treated very effectively. The improvement was recorded in approx. 90 percent. cases who have undergone VR therapy.

VR and autism

Autism is incurable. People suffering from this disorder have a serious problem with adapting to even the simplest social situations. They have a huge problem with communicating with the environment and receiving stimuli from the environment. Nevertheless, researchers at the University of Texas in Dallas have developed an interesting project that uses just the virtual reality. Autistic patients take part in various types of virtual events, and their brain activity is monitored during this time. This allows at least in a sense to understand how the world is perceived by a person suffering from this disorder, and also helps to choose individual therapy, allowing at least partial compensation of the disorder and increasing the patient’s ability to interact with the environment.

One of the most important issues leading to the effective rehabilitation of autistic people is understanding how they perceive the world around them. A great example of how to understand this disease for healthy people is a movie created on the initiative of the British The National Autistic Society. The production was carried out using 360-degree video technology, so I encourage you to watch the video below at least with cardboard type goggles.

Virtual scalpel and education

We don’t have enough medical specialists. And there are even fewer outstanding experts in specific fields. Thanks to VR, the education of future specialists, in particular surgeons will become more simple. An example can be such a difficult field as neurosurgery. The field of experiments is very limited in this case. Thanks to virtual reality, medical students can train in a safe, virtual environment, and novice medical adepts can learn about the nuances of human anatomy thanks to VR and AR. A special feature of virtual reality is that it recreates not only the real world but also its elements, which we would not be able to observe with only our senses. However, volumetric rendering allows the doctor to “visit” a three-dimensional model of the human skull. Thanks to the spatial VR modeling, the same effect is gained by a much smaller effort and resources. Interactive, dynamic and three-dimensional visualizations also have a huge advantage over classic book medical atlases.

The potential of VR technics in surgery is great on the film made by Maki Sugimoto, presenting the operation of the da Vinci surgical robot supported by a specialized doctor wearing a VR Oculus Rift helmet.

Virtual reality is an extraordinary stage in the development of medicine. However, we should remember that more and more perfect visual environments, more and more accuracy, better immersion, resolution, and richness of impressions that we receive in VR require the more and more computing power we need. Intel is well aware of this, and has been working on it for several years and has been intensively investing in VR solutions and optimizing the computing power. George Woo, one of the directors of Intel, declared at the beginning of this year that the company he represented really puts a lot of emphasis on VR, considering this technology branch as very promising. No wonder, then, that it was Intel that in early November 2016 took over the startup of Voke (now Intel True VR), which developed a live VR transmission technology – a solution that can be checked for example in surgical operations with remote assistance or in telemedicine. Really, we live in interesting times.


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