Works in Progress - Autumn 2017

Mind Games

Healing patients, literally and virtually

By Charlotte Salley | September 5, 2017

Would you still dread going to the doctor if you knew you’d be putting on a virtual reality headset instead of a paper gown? Patients suffering from certain psychosomatic illnesses—tremors, seizures, and other sensory motor disorders with no known neurological cause and often with accompanying chronic pain—can now look to Stanford University’s Kim Bullock, who’s using VR technology (those goofy-looking headsets teenagers toy around with) to conduct a two-year trial to ease symptom frequency.

“Limb swapping” is one of the trial’s focal points: the patient dons the VR headset and for half an hour experiences an inverted, able-bodied perspective. If a patient has a tremor in her left hand, for example, that hand would be swapped with the tremor-free right hand in the virtual world. Bullock believes that the sensation helps fool the brain into remapping the neural pathways that have, up until now, said, Make left hand tremble! 

Better yet, whereas other treatments may cost thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, here the patient need only peer through a virtual reality headset like the HTC Vive, available on Amazon Prime for $800. The potential for use with nonpsychosomatic disorders is great, and Bullock hopes that eventually other readily accessible devices, such as the iPhone, could be used. Researchers are currently “coming up with prepackaged physical and mental health therapy that you can just take home, like a medication,” says Bullock. These technological advances are “going to be a totally, totally different reality.” Doctor’s orders.


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