Virtual Reality: The Future of Physical Rehabilitation

Here at the Miller-Dwan Foundation, we’re always holding our breath. Holding our breath for the day when those people with spinal cord injuries can walk again, when those who’ve lost a limb can regain feeling and mobility.

Then today, I saw this headline:

“For the first time in the world, researchers from Sagol Center for Regenerative Biotechnology at Tel Aviv University have engineered 3D human spinal cord tissues and implanted them in lab model with long-term chronic paralysis. The results were highly encouraging: an approximately 80% success rate in restoring walking abilities.”

So, is it time to breathe?

Not just yet. Researchers are preparing for the next stage of the study: clinical trials in human patients. But they do hope that within a few years the engineered tissues, taken from belly fat, will be implanted in paralyzed individuals enabling them to stand up and walk again.

But that’s just part of the story.

Artificial Intelligence

Researchers have also combined machine-learning with artificial intelligence to create prosthetics that deliver smoother, more responsive, and more intuitive activity than is currently possible. Ultimately, the researchers want to develop a prosthetic hand that is as flexible and reliable as a user’s original limb.

And still, there’s more.

In a lab in Bar Harbor, Maine, researchers are injecting an amino sterol into fish allowing them to regenerate body parts at an amazing pace.

So, what’s in store for our future, I wonder.

What does the future hold?

The Miller-Dwan Foundation has been asking this question a lot lately. As philanthropy changes, as research advances, and as we continue to support physical rehabilitation as part of our mission, it’s important for us to contemplate the future. A crystal ball would be helpful. In lieu of that, however, we must continually survey the environment and make sure we’re connecting with physical rehabilitation experts like those providing care right here in Duluth.

“It’s exciting to see some of the progress occurring,” says Chris Thorson, Rehabilitation Services Manager at Miller-Dwan Medical Center. “…if they can fine tune the programming, have a reliable power source, and mitigate surgical side effects such as infection risk, I could see some version of this type of [brain and spinal cord] stimulation being used on a limited basis within 10 years.”

But more immediate approaches do offer some promise.

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (VR) is one of those approaches. VR specifically designed for patients who need physical rehabilitation, can take rehabilitation care to the next level. Miller-Dwan Rehabilitation therapists can program each $5,000 VR unit to help individual patients focus on range of motion, balance, cognition and more – whatever they might need. The VR then measures progress allowing therapists to adjust for improvements along the way. The result is brain rewiring at a level we’ve not yet experienced.

If you’ve tried VR, you know how realistic it can be. “Virtual reality is so exciting,” says Kerry Jo Johnson, Miller-Dwan Foundation Marketing Specialist. “It completely immerses you into the experience, allowing you to feel as though you are truly part of this alternate reality. It’s pretty incredible.” Stay tuned to this site for more information about how this works.

“Our goal is always to support those physical rehabilitation solutions that help people achieve better functionality. To help them manage daily living on their own as best they can,” says Miller-Dwan Foundation President, Traci Marciniak. “But there’s always more to be done.”

Changes to Funding

Speaking of breathing, in addition to new research findings and advancements in care, the pandemic has changed what we fund, as well. As more patients present with post-COVID 19 respiratory symptoms, Miller-Dwan Foundation has paid for the training that allows physical therapists to provide the respiratory muscle training necessary for a more complete recovery. “While we hadn’t originally budgeted for this, being agile is in these changing times is critical,” says Joan Oswald, Grants Specialist.

“Everything is moving and changing really fast,” says Marciniak. “It’s our goal to stay on top of it. What helped someone last year, may no longer provide the very best care today. The problem is that no singular entity can afford every new advancement, but with community support we can do a lot.”

Click here for an interesting read about the latest spinal cord work.

To support physical therapy work that happens right here in the northland, click here. If you’d like to purchase a Virtual Reality headset at $5,000 each, click here or reach out to us at (218) 786-5829.

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