Scary diagnosis?  Nothing is unknown anymore!

It is hard to talk to patients about brain surgery because it is very abstract. It involves combining difficult news about a scary diagnosis with the additional fear of not knowing what to expect and not being able to understand what the specialist is explaining to them.

Vr can help docs and patients alike visualize the brain
What makes craniotomy extremely challenging is the intricate network of blood vessels and capillaries

But when the patients have the opportunity to see a model inside their own brain, they can see the structures – including the tumor, the aneurism.

One shot – that’s all you got, Doc. Not anymore!

What makes brain surgery challenging traditionally is that brain surgeons were relegated to preparing for the procedure by looking at 2D images of 3 dimensional space, and then in their minds to create a 3D map in their head as to how to conduct the operation.

VR helps doctors practice their every move - without ever touching a live patient
Specialists can actually practice what they will do before they step inside the real operating room

The answer came in the form of taking MRI and CT scans and using software to fuse them together, creating a virtual reconstruction. It gives the doctors and patients the benefit of VR-alizing the anatomy. The content – in this case the brain scan – comes alive.

The patient, after putting on the VR goggles, is physically there with the doctors who will be performing the operation. Patients who went through the experience prior to the operation reported being more peaceful, knowing what to expect.

Tackling Schizophrenia

Physicians have long reported that diagnoses are fraught with complications and subtleties. According to the World Health Organization anywhere from 35 percent to 85 percent of mental health conditions go undetected and undiagnozed.

VR is helping Schizophrenia patients cope with symptoms
VR simulation makes it possible to mitigate the symptoms of Schizophrenia

The introduction of virtual reality (VR) creates the possibility to simultaneously trigger and at the same time measure psychiatric symptoms.

Case in point, the assessment of social behavior in schizophrenia patients is possible through the interaction with avatars – all taking place in virtual environment.

One in four schizophrenia patients continues to experience voices despite being treated with drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy.

As part of the revolutionary VR treatment, patients are encouraged to talk to the avatar and take control of the conversation, saying things such as, “I’m not going to listen to you anymore.”

In this way, over a period of several weeks, this Avatar therapy approach was found to reduce the power of schizophrenia voices. Patients who received this therapy became less distressed and heard voices less often compared with those who had counselling instead.

Diagnosing degenerative conditions

Parkinson’s diseases, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease are all neurodegenerative diseases. These collectively refer to slowly progressive, hereditary or acquired diseases of the nervous system.

VR has found application in the early detection of Alzheimer’s

A common feature for these diseases is a progressive loss of nerve cells – neuro-degeneration, leading to various neurological symptoms – primary to trouble with coordination.

Researchers led by Cambridge University’s Dr. Dennis Chan were able to successfully test participants’ spatial navigation and memory via an HTC Vive headset.

They were tasked with follow an L-shaped path in a virtual environment (at first mapped out by cones), and then trace their footsteps back, unaided by any markers.

Similar progress was achieved by scientists from Tomsk Polytechnic University and Siberian State Medical University.

Alzheimer brain on the right vs. normal brain, left
VR makes it possible to early diagnose Alzheimer’s

“Our sense of balance and our movement are controlled with a number of systems. This is the vestibular apparatus – the inner ear and semicircular ducts – which determines our position in space and the direction of gravity.

…this is also muscular system and vision – it helps us to monitor constantly the horizon. All these coordinated systems operate automatically. 

They falter if a person gets a neurodegenerative disease to develop, for example, Parkinson’s disease,” explains Ivan Tolmachov, senior instructor at the TPU Department of Industrial and Medical Electronics, associate professor at SSMU.

Overcoming trauma with Virtual Reality

VR technology is increasingly employed in the treatment of various phobias, syndromes – basically by simulating the stressors which trigger a negative reaction in the subject. The keyword in this treatment is exposure.

Virtual Reality is helping war veterans cope with trauma
VR helps treat PTSD patients by exposing them to the sources of their anxiety

The goal of exposure therapy then is to help reduce a person’s fear and anxiety, with the ultimate goal of eliminating avoidance behavior.

This is achieved by actively confronting the things that a person fears most – be it via situations, thoughts or emotions. The more a person gets exposed, the lesser the fear or manifestation of avoidance behavior.

“VR provides a unique opportunity to bring real-life experiences into the clinician’s office” …

… with some psychiatric disorders, for example OCD or panic disorder, patients usually experience their symptoms in their personal environment or in crowded places, and not in the clinician’s room.

… with VR it is possible to immerse patients in an exterior environment while the clinician can observe symptoms and interview the patients about these symptoms and underlying thoughts.” explains Dr. Martine van Bennekom, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Psychiatry.

Soldier using VR technology for PTSD treatment
Soldiers put on VR gear to get over any traumatic experience after their tour is completed
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