How Virtual Reality Could Help People Living with Parkinson's Disease


Published: 05 December 2017

Thomas, a retired attorney, is a real character. Love the man or hate him, he is a man of his convictions. You always know where he stands by the look on his face… but today, the face is a mask; the quintessential poker face. Unfortunately for Thomas, we aren't playing cards.

Thomas has Parkinson’s disease, and his flat affect was just one of the clinical presentations that are so common among patients with this condition.

In a 2016 study, virtual reality was combined with proprioceptive training to test if improving proprioceptive function could also improve motor performance.

Participants diagnosed with Parkinson's disease were attached to a robotic sensor that detected small, precise wrist movements to make a table tilt in a virtual environment with the goal of balancing a virtual ball on a target. To increase the difficulty of the test, the responsiveness of the virtual ball was increased.

The researchers found an increase in movement precision in other, untrained motor tasks and wrist proprioceptive function.

However, more research is certainly called for in this field. There are huge questions regarding the choice of physical training methods and the exact nature and duration of exercises to be prescribed for patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Why is this important?

Well, one factor that can help improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is being able to see what’s going on. It might seem obvious that seeing movements would make it easier to control them, but in a study by Pilgram et al. (2016), patients with Parkinson’s needed more support and took wider, slower steps when vision of their limbs was occluded. Participants without Parkinson’s took shorter steps with impaired vision, but their gait was otherwise unchanged.

Interestingly, it seems that seeing movements in a virtual reality can help patients with Parkinson’s. As technology progresses, so do the training options for improving motor function. (However, more investigations and controlled clinical trials are necessary.)

Watch for another way VR is being used in Parkinson's treatment:

Parkinson's Disease and Motor Movement

Parkinson’s disease is a disabling neurodegenerative disease that is on the rise. According to (2015), the number of patients with Parkinson’s worldwide is on a trajectory to more than double over a 25 year period (from 4.1. million in 2005 to 8.7 million in 2030).

Parkinson’s disease is characterised by a decline in physical, psychological, social and neurological functions in affected patients. The disease manifests in the form of loss of gait and mobility, tremors in skeletal muscles, postural inability and loss of balance and coordination.

Individuals with Parkinson’s have movements that appear stiff. They intermittently freeze-up in the middle of a motor act, especially when doing non-automated acts such as stepping over the threshold to a doorway. Patients with Parkinson’s live on a continuum, but the end of the road is the inability to perform dual processing.

For you or me, the environment provides comprehensible clues, both visual and tactile, that help us originate movements and predict the need to make U-turns in our motor planning. This skill is damaged for a patient with Parkinson’s. Many researchers believe that haptic perception (the ability to reach into a bag of – for illustration purposes - slimy worms and distinguish a lone penny nail by touch) is seriously atrophied in Parkinson’s patients.

Routinely, patients with Parkinson’s manifest with odd patterns of proprioceptive integration. Individuals lose spatial awareness of where their limbs are located. If you passively move one of their limbs and do not allow them to visually assess the change, they may be unable to match the placement with the other side. They can even lose their ability to regulate grip strength, a truly frustrating and highly noticeable symptom.

Read: Parkinson's Disease

parkinson's disease

Cause and Effect of Parkinson's Disease

So, what is the root cause of the degenerative changes seen in people with Parkinson’s? Some researchers argue that these deficits are prompted by changes experienced in the diseased brain’s ability to process the barrage of incoming kinesthetic signals. The information that comes in is not 'read' correctly by the brain and thus the motor action that is generated - based on that faulty information - is also faulty.

Death of dopamine-stimulated neurons in the motor cortex is responsible for the progressive debilitation seen in Parkinson’s disease patients. Since the disease is chronic and progressive, patients gradually lose their ability to perform even simple daily tasks.

There are also psychological facets to Parkinson’s disease. Statistics from 2016 suggest that only 48% of patients asked about their reaction to a new diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease stated that they were able to cope with this new reality. Over half of respondents expressed feelings like 'my world has ended' or 'I didn’t know who to turn to' (Statista 2016).

Although there are medicines available to alleviate specific symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, the disease usually progresses to a stage where the patient’s movements are severely restricted.