VR Helps Amputees Suffering From Phantom Limb Syndrome

A scientific program is utilizing VR technology to help recent amputees accept prosthetic limbs.

According to research, approximately 60-80% of amputees experience a case of “phantom limb syndrome” at some point following their amputation. An uncomfortable, sometimes painful case, those affected feel as though they still have control of their “ghost” limb and may even experience sensations such as itching, twitches, and the desire to gesture.

Recent advancements in prosthetic technology have proved useful in returning functionality to amputees, albeit with mixed results. Those affected by phantom limb often imagine their missing limb as much smaller than it originally was, resulting in a mental rejection of the new, appropriately-sized prosthetic limb. Add in the fact that a majority of these fake limbs provide zero tactile feedback, and you can begin to understand why it may not always be a seamless transition for these troubled patients.

To help combat the rejection of these prosthetic limbs, a scientific collaboration led by EPFL (Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) has begun using VR technology to assist amputees in accepting their futuristic new limbs.

Based off the famous “seeing is believing” idiom, the project involves stimulating an affected area while corresponding VR footage, synced to the actions happening in real-life, is displayed to the patient. In the case of two hand amputees, researchers touched key areas of the amputees stumps while VR footage showed a virtual hand being stimulated in real-time.

The result was a longer, more accurate phantom limb sensation. This in turn lead to the patients easily accepting their prosthetic limbs. Some reports indicate that the amputees could even feel their ghost limb growing into their new one.

“The brain regularly uses its senses to evaluate what belongs to the body and what is external to the body. We showed exactly how vision and touch can be combined to trick the amputee’s brain into feeling what it sees, inducing embodiment of the prosthetic hand with an additional effect that the phantom limb grows into the prosthetic one,” states Giulio Rognini of EPFL’s Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroprosthetics led by Olaf Blanke, in a collaboration with Silvestro Micera of EPFL and Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna. “The setup is portable and could one day be turned into a therapy to help patients embody their prosthetic limb permanently.”

Originally reported by Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, you can learn more about the collaborations results via the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.

Image Credit: Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne

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Former Writer (Kyle Melnick)

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