Virtual reality for a real problem

January 13, 2008 6:46:40 AM PST
For thousands of people in our area with balance problems, even a walk across a room is anything but simple. A new lab at Temple University is working to free them from the invisible bonds that can seriously hem in their lives.

As Emily Keshner, P.T., Ed.D., says, "Balance is in everything you do."

Every second of your day, a complex system is silently at work, to keep your head and feet in the right place.

The human balance system has 3 components - our eyes, the bones in our inner ear, and pro-prioceptors - sensors in all of our joints which subconsciously tell us how we are moving.

Though the parts are the same, we all use the different components in our own way.

Keshner, the director of Temple University's Postural Organization lab, says, " People tend to rely more on one versus the other."

At the lab, researchers use virtual reality to explore those differences, and how to fix them when they fail.

As a technician puts volunteer Jill Sloboda into a suspension harness, he asks, "Are you OK?" She responds, " Yup, as far as I can tell."

6 projectors beam double images onto the 3 screens.

A pair of special glasses, and the brain put them together to create a 3 dimensional environment.

Keshner says, "They truly believe they are in a world that is moving."

Sloboda, says the images were real to her, "I wanted to walk with the scene, and kind of walk into the scene."

A floor plate was also moving, adding to the challenge.

Computers track a person's responses, to figure out what's working, and what's not.

Illness, accidents, and medications can silently alter our balance.

People on tranquilizers are especially vulnerable to falls.

Keshner says a past study showed, "They don't always catch the cues. They're not as sensitive to the sense they are starting to fall, and can't catch themselves quickly enough."

One major study underway in the lab is on stroke patients - no one knows why they lose their sense of balance.

According to Keshner. "One of the things we think might be happening is that they can't deal with the complexity of the information they might be receiving."

When her time in virtual reality is done, our volunteer, Jill, is glad. "You wouldn't think it's as hard to keep your balance."