A steadying eye will help stroke victims walk

An Israeli professor has developed a virtual reality device that improves the walking speed and steadiness of stroke victims and Parkinson’s disease sufferers.

Use of the system should help patients remain active, which is known to slow the progression of the disease.

While a healthy person’s brain provides signals that help with balance, co-ordination and orientation, those with Parkinson’s or whose brain has been damaged after suffering a stroke lack these normal biofeedback mechanisms.

Following a stumble their brain finds it hard to process data to allow them to correct their movement and prevent a fall. So they develop a distinctive slow, shuffling gait.After learning that Parkinson’s patients walk better on tiled floors owing to the level of orientation this provides, Prof Yoram Baram of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa developed a device consisting of a Walkman-sized computer with a tiny unit that clips on to the user’s glasses.

The unit provides a visual image of a virtual tiled floor which responds to the user’s motion. So it is stationary when the user is and moves and turns as they do, even when navigating rough terrain or stairs.

Improved speed and gait

The patented innovation is the first of its kind to respond to the patient’s movements rather than just providing a constant visual display. The image provides artificial biofeedback to the user’s brain without blocking their view of their surroundings, allowing them to improve their speed and gait and so remain active.

‘The patient sees a picture of the virtual floor displayed on one eye,’ said Baram, who previously worked for NASA developing visual imagery technology to help low-flying pilots with their navigation.

‘The tile patterns provide continuous, stabilising visual information which safeguards against stumbling and falling while walking.’

In clinical tests on over 40 stroke and Parkinson’s victims, all patients walked better. Some experienced drastic improvement similar to the effects of medication or brain surgery.

The trials also suggested that the device might have long term effects as those using the device found improvements in their walking continued for some time, even after removing it.

Baram is now working on methods for shrinking the device to the size of a cigarette lighter, using components that will allow it to be sold for around £140.