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Virtual reality used to help improve balance for brain injury survivors

Friday 28 July 2017

Researchers are using virtual reality as part of a project aimed at improving walking for people who have survived brain injury.

A team theUniversity of Salford are now recruiting people who have experienced braininjuries – either through medical problems such as strokes or tumours, orthrough traumatic incidents such as car accidents – to take part in the study.

Virtual reality isbeing used to measure balance and relate this to problems with sensation in thefeet in order to develop special insoles which stimulate the feet and improvewalking in brain injury survivors.

Up to 85 per centof people with brain injury have difficulty with sensation and balancing, butas sensation is usually tested in the hands, very little is known aboutsensation in the feet.

Dr KristenHollands, Senior Research Fellow at the University, explained: “Sensation fromthe soles of the feet tell our brains important information about our postureand the ground beneath us.  We use this to control balance, but while manypeople have difficulty with both balance and sensation after brain injury,little is known about how difficulties with foot sensation affect balance.”

Researchers hopethat through a range of techniques, such as using virtual reality to simulatesituations which would normally cause balance problems, as well as tests onfoot sensation, they will be able to create insoles to help overcome thesedifficulties.

With the increasinguse of 3D printing, many companies have begun selling insoles which havetextured surfaces or vibrate the feet. Some research has suggested theseinsoles may improve balance by stimulating sensation in healthy adults but itis not known whether the same is true for people with brain injury.

Researchers fromthe University’s School of Health Sciences and School of Health and Societywill interview participants about their experiences of loss of foot sensationas well as balance and mobility.

They will alsoinvite participants to undergo painless testing to get more information abouthow their feet detect sensations such as pressure, touch and temperature, andwill use virtual reality environments to safely replicate situations whichwould create balance problems, such as reaching for a high shelf or trying toretain balance when standing on a bus that stops or starts suddenly.

The team will usethis information to create a prototype insole targeting specific sensationproblems relating to balance.

The study, fundedby the National Institute for Health Research Brain Injury HealthcareTechnology Co-operative, is hoped to lead to future research to develop andtest this prototype.

Dr Hollandssaid:  “The insoles that are available now have not been designed based onthe experiences of people with brain injury, their balance and sensoryproblems, what they might want any insole to help them with, or any clinicalmeasures of how foot sensation is affected by brain injury.

“Treatments in thisarea are being led by developments in technology rather than what patientsactually need. Our project aims to redress this balance by engaging directlywith people with brain injury and learning more about their difficulties andwhat they would want an insole to help them with.”

Dr TraceyWilliamson, Reader in Public Involvement and Patient Engagement at theUniversity, said: “This is another example of how members of the public arehelping us do life-changing research and we would like as many people aspossible to come forward.”

Anyone interestedin being involved as an adviser (person with a brain injury or care partner) ora participant (person with a brain injury) should contact Dr Tracey Williamsonfor an information pack or a chat on or 0161 295 6424.