Researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have discovered that augmented reality and machine learning can help reduce phantom limb pain in chronic cases.
Dr. Max Ortiz Catalan, who pioneered the study, told Inverse that the therapy is "non-invasive [and] low-risk" and that it "holds great potential to treat the condition." The study, which found that phantom limb pain was reduced by over 50 percent with the use of augmented reality, was published Thursday in The Lancet.
"The approach we propose to treat phantom limb pain showed promising results in patients for whom all previous treatment failed," Catalan said.
The researchers utilized a form of artificial intelligence called machine learning to create a brain-computer interface that was able to gather and interpret neurological signals sent to the patient's phantom limb. The computer would then translate these signals into movement commands.
For the study, the researchers attached surface electrodes on the stumps of the patients' amputated limbs. These electrodes recorded muscle activation. The AI would then connect the patients' intended movements with the signals collected by the electrodes, eventually learning how specific signals correspond to the patients' intended movements. Catalan had the idea to match these movements and signals with augmented reality. From these, he built a system that created a live augmented reality feed of the virtual limb based on the AI's output.
While the researchers' findings still need to be confirmed by a larger study, the team remains hopeful that the technology will prove useful in the treatment of phantom limb pain. "The results from our study suggest that it may be useful to 'exercise' the phantom limb," Catalan told Science Focus. "Our treatment offers an engaging way to do this while also providing a non-invasive and non-pharmacological treatment which was found to reduce chronic pain with no observed side effects."
A number of tech companies have released VR headsets that may prove useful for amputees. Microsoft has announced that it has a new set of VR products that will be released in the near future. Facebook also has the Oculus Rift while HTC has the Vive. Google has the daydream and recently released a Tango-enabled phablet which may also come in handy.