Curtin University has developed a new program that employs an interactive, home-based virtual reality (VR) simulation or ‘serious game’ to improve upper limb function in people with spinal cord injuries.

The immersive VR rehabilitation project, using cooking a virtual steak as a functional rehabilitation activity for people with cervical spinal cord injuries, was part of a feasibility study with one participant and will now be extended to five participants in a pilot study.

Lead researcher associate professor Marina Ciccarelli from Curtin’s School of Occupational Therapy said the technology was developed as an adjunct to conventional rehabilitation that can occur at home, which maximised opportunities for functional recovery, increased opportunity for daily rehabilitation, minimising time, travel, and therapy costs.

“If a spinal cord injury is incomplete, there is potential to regain sensation, movement, and control through rehabilitation,” Ciccarelli said.

“Our research team will now collaborate with five people who have incomplete cervical spinal cord injuries to customise the VR-simulation to address their individual therapy needs and goals regarding specific arm movements. Virtual tasks include seasoning, frying, flipping and transferring a steak from pan to plate, which when done repetitively over time, helps improve the participant’s control and range of upper limb movements.”

Daily progress in the VR game can be remotely measured and reviewed by their therapist, and the level of challenge adjusted as needed. Upper limb motor function will be measured before, during and after the six-week program, which is done at home with 30-minute daily sessions that requires minimal carer support.

The project was boosted by funding from the WA Insurance Commission that supports initiatives that seeks to increase the independence of people with spinal injuries caused in a vehicle crash or at work.

The research program is coordinated by the Australian Physiotherapy Association and Occupation Therapy Australia.

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