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UNC researchers are using virtual reality to help detect multiple sclerosis earlier

Student Jessica Thompson uses virtual reality in the Applied Biomechanics Lab at UNC’s School of Medicine. Photo by Devin Hubbard.

Researchers in the Applied Biomechanics Lab at UNC’s School of Medicine are using virtual reality to study early detection of multiple sclerosis.

The researchers believe this technology could allow patients to be diagnosed earlier.

The research at UNC began about two years ago under principal investigator Jason Franz, an assistant professor in the UNC and North Carolina State University Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering.

The study compared people with MS to age-matched participants that do not have MS, Franz said. Participants in the study were harnessed and asked to walk on a treadmill while watching the semi-circular virtual reality screen in the lab.

The screen shows a virtual hallway that appears as if the subject is walking through it, as researchers measure the reactions of those walking on the treadmill.

“We rely on sensory signals from under our feet to tell our brain what kind of corrections we should be making from one step to the next,” Franz said. “With somebody with a neurodegenerative disease, like MS, those are the signals that become unreliable and noisy really early on.”

The lab allowed researchers to slowly adjust visionary illusions — called optical flow perturbations — providing the perception that participants were falling in the virtual hallway. The reaction times and step measurements varied clearly in those with MS from those without.

Researchers have found differences in the walking and movement patterns of those with the illness.

Jacob Sosnoff, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, served as a collaborator to the virtual reality study. He said the virtual reality study is a way for researchers to try to detect subtle deficits in individuals with MS.

“People will tell us that they feel bad, but we look at their gait speed or MRI and we won't see any new impairments,” Sosnoff said. “We know that we have to develop new techniques to measure subtle deficits that we’re not picking up with some of our common tools.”

Sosnoff said the virtual reality tool could provide the opportunity to allow doctors to do earlier intervention to make walking better for patients.

“You need to bring to the surface all those subtle balance deficits that are brewing under the surface,” Franz said. “They don’t really get to the point where you would be able to see them with your own eyes walking normally until after the person starts experiencing falls and that risk of getting injured.”

The results offer promise that MS could be detected early using the virtual reality technology to see signs of MS and balance problems before they would be able to diagnose the disease without its use.

Franz said there is a necessity for studies such as this one.

“There is a critical need for innovation and the detection of balance impairment as early as possible,” Franz said. “It’s not sufficient to just wait until the person begins to fall because we know that fall-related injuries can have a significant impact on quality of life.”

Allyson Cole, a senior majoring in English and romance languages, said studies like these could make a big difference for those who have MS and for their families. Her father was diagnosed with MS around 2016 but may have been undiagnosed for five to 10 years.

“In my father’s case, he kind of scraped by,” Cole said. “He’s definitely fortunate, but for people who have more severe cases, diagnosing earlier is of the utmost benefit.”

Cole said her father was encouraged that research is being done on an illness that he thinks is slow-moving and is sometimes looked over.

Franz said the study provided a specific opportunity to leverage virtual reality in a particular, clinically relevant way.

“I think what we’ve got is some promising data to inspire others to see virtual reality as a potential avenue for innovation, diagnostics and rehab,” he said.

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