Virtual reality could be useful not only for detecting balance impairments early, but perhaps also for reversing those impairments and preventing falls.
Every year, falls lead to hospitalization or death for hundreds of thousands of elderly Americans. Standard clinical techniques generally cannot diagnose balance impairments before they lead to falls.
In a study in Scientific Reports, a research team led by Jason R. Franz, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, used a novel VR system to create the visual illusion of a loss of balance as study participants walked on a treadmill.
By perturbing their sense of balance in this way and recording their movements, Franz’s team was able to determine how the participants’ muscles responded. In principle, a similar setup could be used in clinical settings to diagnose balance impairments, or even to train people to improve their balance while walking.
“We were able to identify the muscles that orchestrate balance corrections during walking,” Franz says. “We also learned how individual muscles are highly coordinated in preserving walking balance. These things provide an important roadmap for detecting balance impairments and the risk of future falls.”
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