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Virtual reality therapy
Photo: Duke University

Virtual reality helps paraplegic patients gain control

Technology can change lives. Need proof? Researchers have proved that long-term training with a brain-machine system can induce partial recovery in paraplegic patients. The results were astonishing. After training, the patients regained voluntary motor control in key muscles.

The study, led by Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, noted, “…at the end of the first 12 months of training with the WA-NR [Walk Again Neurorehabilitation] protocol, a comprehensive neurological examination revealed that all of our eight patients had experienced a significant clinical improvement in their ability to perceive somatic sensations and exert voluntary motor control in dermatomes located below the original SCI [spinal cord injury].”

Virtual reality therapy

It involves a virtual reality system that uses the patients’ brain activity to simulate full control of legs. Initially, the patients wore fitted caps lined with 11 non-invasive electrodes to record their brain activity through EEG. They were then asked to imagine walking in the virtual environment. And, at first, they didn’t observe the expected signals in the areas associated with motor control of their legs.

But over time, the scientists began to observe the brain activity. “Basically, the training reinserted the representation of lower limbs into the patients’ brains,” Nicolelis said.

The study noted,  “seven months into training, EMG recordings revealed that all patients started to show signs of motor recovery, indicated by their ability to voluntarily control at least one muscle below the level of the SCI.”

Over the course of the training, the participants were given more intensive training that required them to use lot more muscles and to control their postures and balance.

Their improved ability also had a few positive side effects.

Most patients saw improvements in their bladder control and bowel function, reducing their reliance on laxatives and catheters. These changes reduce patients’ risk of infections, which are common in patients with chronic paralysis and are a leading cause of death, Nicolelis said.

Brain machine interface
A computer monitor in the lab of Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D., shows the brain activity of a monkey using a brain-machine interface. Photo credit: Shawn Rocco/Duke Health

The next step

Now, the team plans to publish additional data about participants’ continued progress. They also plan to create a new trial with patients who suffered more recent spinal cord injuries to see whether quicker treatment can lead to faster or better results.

The other researchers include Ana R. C. Donati; Solaiman Shokur; Edgard Morya; Debora S. F. Campos; Renan C. Moioli; Claudia M. Gitti; Patricia B. Augusto; Sandra Tripodi; Cristhiane G. Pires; Gislaine A. Pereira; Fabricio L. Brasil; Simone Gallo; Anthony A. Lin; Angelo K. Takigami; Maria A. Aratanha; Sanjay Joshi; Hannes Bleuler; Gordon Cheng; and Alan Rudolph.


Duke University Medical Center. (2016, August 11). Paraplegics regain some feeling, movement after using brain-machine interfaces. ScienceDaily.

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