WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute explores virtual reality to combat chronic pain and other conditions

New published study in PAIN®️ shows effectiveness of immersive virtual reality when combined with spinal cord stimulation

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Researchers at the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute (RNI) are advancing their efforts to utilize virtual reality (VR) technology to combat a wide range of neurological conditions from chronic pain to addiction and Alzheimer’s disease. A newly-published study in PAIN®, the official publication of the International Association for the Study of Pain, shows that the use of VR can provide additional leg pain relief in patients with spinal cord stimulation (SCS).

Ali Rezai, M.D.
Ali Rezai, M.D.

Ali Rezai, M.D., executive chair of the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, is a co-principal investigator for this study, in collaboration with Olaf Blanke, M.D., Ph.D., of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, and Vibhor Krishna M.D., Ph.D., of Ohio State University.

The immersive and embodied personalized VR experience allows patients to see and feel the effects of spinal cord stimulation together by watching a 3D VR image of their own body. Through the integrated SCS-VR approach, the stimulated area of a patient’s virtual leg is illuminated when it receives the SCS treatment. The average pain score was reduced by 44 percent when VR was combined with SCS as compared to a 23 percent reduction with SCS alone. 

While these findings require additional studies, the integration of VR into chronic pain treatment offers an innovative and non-invasive approach to further improve SCS treatment, which more than 30,000 patients receive every year, according to the International Neuromodulation Society.

“Virtual reality has great potential for transforming care for patients with neurological disorders,” Dr. Rezai said. “This is the first report of VR combined with SCS neuromodulation to improve pain control. Our team is also exploring applications for virtual reality to improve motor function in stroke, cognitive function in Alzheimer’s, and craving reduction in addiction.”

With support, funding, and collaboration from the National Institute of Aging, the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and industry partners MindMaze and Magstim, the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute recently launched a clinical trial exploring the effectiveness of transcranial magnetic stimulation in combination with virtual reality to reduce the cognitive decline with early Alzheimer’s disease.

About the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute

We are improving lives by pioneering advances in brain health. With the latest technologies, an ecosystem of partners, and an integrated approach, we are making tangible progress. Our goal is to combat public health challenges ranging from COVID-19 to addiction to Alzheimer’s, benefiting people in West Virginia and beyond. Learn more about the RNI’s innovative clinical trials and the top caliber experts joining us in our mission. For more information, visit WVUMedicine.org/RNI.