Researchers Test Augmented Reality to Treat Phantom Pain

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Max Ortiz Catalan, PhD, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden, who conducts research using augmented reality to reduce phantom limb pain in people with amputations, is coordinating further research at eight locations around the world. Catalan, founder of the Biomechatronics and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory at Chalmers, oversaw an initial study in 2016 that uses the same concept as mirror therapy, but leverages the immersion and flexibility offered by virtual reality environments. 

Trent Mundie, left, works with Wendy Hill, a research occupational therapist at the UNB's Institute of Biomedical Engineering.

Photograph by Rob Blanchard courtesy of UNB.

The University of New Brunswick (UNB), Canada, has been chosen as one of the locations for continued study, and is the first to begin holding trials.

"This is a new technique that in a limited field trial showed great promise—where almost everyone had reduced levels of phantom pain," said Jon Sensinger, PhD, the associate director of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at UNB. "It's an exciting first step, though time will tell if it's truly having an impact and if it's any better than existing treatments."

Once the results of the broader study are analyzed, the researchers hope that within three to five years virtual reality therapy will become a viable replacement for mirror therapy.

"The preliminary evidence suggests that this is a successful method," said Dr. Sensinger. "We think we understand what we're exercising in your brain and why that would make an impact in producing pain."

Editor's note: This story was adapted from materials provided by UNB.