Virtual Reality to Help Avoid Elderly Falls

Following research undertaken by academics at NC State University and the UNC University on balance loss, it is possible that elderly people struggling with this issue can now be helped. A system has been devised which can identify and reverse balance deterioration in seniors. Using virtual reality, the researchers were able to recreate the visual illusion of losing balance when walking on a treadmill facing a large screen portraying a hallway in motion.

In Nature Scientific Reports, Jason R. Franz, co-author of the study (and Assistant Professor at Joint NC State/UNC Department of Biomedical Engineering. Ph.D., University of Colorado, Boulder) explained further:

“As each person walked, we added lateral oscillations to the video imagery, so that the visual environment made them feel as if they were swaying back and forth, or ­falling. We were able to identify the muscles that orchestrate balance corrections during walking. 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.”

Using 14 cameras, researchers recorded positions of 30 reflective markers on study participants’ back, legs and pelvis. When a participant felt they were going to lose balance they automatically took either shorter steps or a longer period of time to make the steps, in line with the researchers’ expectations. In addition, researchers evaluated the capacity of the muscles to respond to perceived balance loss, pinpointing the muscle groups that could correct this.

It was discovered that – in order to maintain a walking balance – there was an elevated level of individual muscle coordination. The data they provided, created vial reference measurements which can be put to future clinical procedures which are used to detect ­balance impairments before they start to cause individuals to fall.

As such, in the future, a system like this might be able to facilitate the process used to help balance-­impaired individuals ease their balance and avoid falls.