Virtual Reality helps diabetic patients control their blood circulation

Norfolk 29 September 1999In scientific studies starting this autumn at the Strelitz Diabetes Research Institute, the research team of Dr. Aaron I. Vinik is aiming to teach diabetic patients techniques based on Virtual Reality for increasing their own blood flow. Poor circulation, especially in the fingers and toes, is a dangerous symptom of diabetes which might lead to amputation in some patients. The experimental system uses the patients' skin surface pulse and temperature measurements to create computer-generated images of the nature and state of the blood vessels beneath the skin. Virtual reality headsets will display the data, allowing patients to "observe" the inside of their bodies.


The Strelitz Diabetes Research Institute, which is hosted at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, has built a strong reputation in the study of how to reverse the complications of diabetes. Director Dr. Aaron I. Vinik and his team are focusing their work on basic science to investigate the causes of nerve cell death, and clinical research projects in neuropathy, as to evaluate preventative measures and possible new treatments. This type of combined clinical and basic science approach has led to the successful application of research findings into state-of-the-art patient care for a number of diabetic modalities.

The implementation of Virtual Reality for diabetic patient monitoring offers an immediate and direct, real time, visual appreciation of what is happening with blood-flow, as explained by Dr. Aaron I. Vinik, who is also professor of internal medicine. The technology has been developed originally by NASA to enable pilots to navigate in bad weather and low-visibility situations. The real time displays have been created from database images as well as GPS or Global Positioning System readings which keep track of the location of the pilot's aircraft.

At a later stage, the NASA space agency adapted the technology to monitor pilots in the cockpit. Different sensors on the pilot's body would keep track of physiological functions, including blood pressure, heart rate, and brain activity, while the pilot was immersed in a variety of 3-D virtual situations. It is this type of Virtual Reality technology, applied to train NASA pilots, that can also be used to pay large services to diabetics in managing their disease by training these patients to control the flow of blood within their bodies.

One of the inventors of this Virtual Reality device is the NASA researcher, Dr. Alan Pope. He has been inspired by a popular 1966 movie, called "The Fantastic Voyage", to the idea of applying the physical world display to the human body. In this film, directed by Richard Fleischer, a doctors' team is miniaturised to be inserted into a dying patient's bloodstream in order to effect a cure. Dr. Pope immediately understood that if patients were enabled to "view" what was going on in their bodies, they could make use of biofeedback to control a variety of functions. In this manner, the patients would be able to learn to control their breathing or to flex certain muscles if they experienced the exercise as helpful.

The research team at the Strelitz Diabetes Research Institute also wants to use the system as an educational tool. Patients and doctors will be able to gauge the effectiveness of medicine, a technique that could provide greater peace of mind for patients. Seeing that a medicine is working quickly and properly can be an important part of the entire medical care. If the Strelitz Institute study proves successful, the technology could be expanded to help other blood-flow disorders, such as migraine headaches. In the future, the scientists search to integrate the Virtual Reality system with home personal computers, consumer electronics, and even gaming consoles.

As a result, patients would be offered the chance to work on the techniques at home and not in a medical clinic. Although the technology is still in the testing stage, one can easily imagine a future doctor's visit taking place with the physician in the office and the patient at home. Both would dispose of a Virtual Reality display, in order to observe the state of the patient's health and well-being. More information on the achievements in diabetes research at the Strelitz Institutes is available on the Web site of the Eastern Virginia Medical School.

Leslie Versweyveld

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