Relearning yourself after a traumatic brain injury

A few years ago, we’d have laughed at the idea that being a virtual archer with a bow-and- arrow could help someone recover from neurologic damage. Not anymore. Christchurch-based CerebralFix is creating Virtual Reality (VR) apps, using their 10 years of global experience in online games.

“We saw what AbleX was doing for stroke rehabilitation and how their approach was engaging people to work at regaining their health. We realised that what we do with passion – entertainment – could be translated into helping people,” says General Manager Nadia Thorne.

AbleX worked with Marcus King from the Callaghan Innovation, and now CerebralFix has formed a relationship with him to advance their VR game for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). This project arose from a clinical need identified through the Laura Fergusson Trust. CerebralFix supported development of this novel VR application for rehabilitation after TBI in collaboration with Marcus King from Callaghan Innovation, Dr Jo Nunnerly from the University of Otago/BAIL and Dr Kristin Gozdzikowska from the Laura Fergusson Trust.

“Marcus called us about cognitive fatigue, or brain tiredness, something that affects around 73 percent of people with TBI, even years after their injury. They have to relearn the basics, and the thinking processes, and seeing and hearing in a busy situation can be enough to exhaust them.”

Nadia says they’re trying to help people understand how VR can help them regain awareness of these difficult situations and the confidence to complete everyday tasks in the home and community. “For example, they can use it to trial a café visit and all the skills needed to enjoy this activity. VR tricks the brain into thinking the person is really in the particular environment, delivering reactions that are very close to real life. With the support of a clinician, the individual can talk through the experience and know that it is safe to fail.”

Nadia says there was some concern VR might be intimidating, but feedback from a focus group has been positive.
“TBI affects people of all ages, from those who’ve had a vehicle accident through to older stroke patients. They all embraced the technology.”

The bow-and-arrow simulation is a good example of how VR can help after stroke to support rehabilitation of impairments with motor function.

“The patient can’t lift their right arm above 90 degrees, but in the game, their arm comes up and they shoot the arrow. The brain isn’t conscious of the action. This suggests the possibility of using technology to help re-make connections,” says Nadia.

She sees VR as complimenting and extending traditional recovery programmes, rather than taking over from them.
CerebralFix is working with the VR TBI research team on a clinical feasibility study. If that goes well, then they will progress to a clinical trial.

Working with the MedTech CoRE is another new relationship for CerebralFix. “The beauty of the MedTech CoRE is the collaboration, something you don’t get when you’re developing games because of the competitive nature of the market,” says Nadia.

This is just the start. With sectors collaborating on new ideas and new ways to solve problems, Nadia believes VR could also help with chronic pain, language difficulties, trailing strategies, cognitive decline, training and education.

By Prue Scott

TBI VR Screenshot