Psychologists and neuroscientists at Hadassah Hospital-Mount Scopus have pioneered a novel virtual reality (VR) system called “VirHab” to help stroke victims recover movement of their limbs, to relieve migraine and tension headaches, and to fight chronic pain.

The team, which includes Rehabilitation Psychologist Shimon Shiri and Neuroscientist Uri Feintuch from the Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Occupational Therapy, is about to launch Phase II clinical trials. Through a VR simulation system, stroke victims who can hardly move their limbs view themselves in real time on a screen, in 3-D images. Using a joystick or mouse, they move slightly to maneuver limbs on the screen, creating a “corrective learning process.”  Rather than replicate reality, this system influences reality, re-training the brain to believe movement is possible.

Headache sufferers use the VR system to learn to relax constricted muscles and to associate relaxed behavior with an image of themselves as pain-free. For victims of chronic pain, the virtual experience triggers neurons to alleviate the pain.

For some time now, VR has been used to relieve phobias, such as fear of flying in airplanes, as well as to distract children who are undergoing painful medical procedures. In addition, a University of Haifa team has found that autistic children can be taught to cross the street safely using VR, by having them look left and right with a simulator. This technique has proven more effective than practicing with the child in a natural setting.

While at this point only a handful of patients have completed the first clinical trial, Dr. Shiri reports that preliminary results have shown a decrease in pain and fear of pain, improvement in functioning, and better emotional and physical well- being.

Dr. Shiri presented his research findings at the Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reisman Second International Congress on Chronic Disorders and Disabilities in Children, sponsored by the Hadassah Medical Center this month. The patent-pending VR system is being marketed by Hadasit, the Hadassah Medical Organization’s technology transfer company. Two versions are being planned: one for use in clinics and hospitals, and the other for home use by the patient alone or with a therapist. The Hadassah physicians believe that the VR system could eventually be used to tackle many more chronic pain conditions and disabilities.

Editor’s Note: Information for the above story was excerpted from a December 5, 2008 Jerusalem Post online article, “Hadassah Tries to ‘Trick the Brain’ With Virtual Reality To Treat Physical Ailments” by Judith Siegel Itzkovich.