Scientists at The University of Manchester are using 3D computer graphics to combat the pain suffered by amputees. Academics from the School of Computer Science and School of Psychological Sciences have developed a virtual reality system, which gives the illusion that a person’s amputated limb is still there.
The computer system created by Dr Stephen Pettifer and Toby Howard of the School of Computer Science, immerses patients into a life-size virtual reality world. By putting on a headset, patients will see themselves with two limbs. They can use their remaining physical limb to control the movements of a computer-generated limb, which appears in the 3D computer-generated world in the space of their amputated limb. So for example, they can use their physical right arm to control the movement of their virtual left arm. Patients have complex hand-eye coordination and can move their fingers, hands, arms, feet and legs. They can also use their virtual limb to play ball games.
Phantom limb pain or PLP is discomfort felt by a person in a limb that is missing due to amputation. Previous research has found that when a person’s brain is ‘tricked’ into believing they can see and move a 'phantom limb', pain can decrease.
So far, five patients living in the Manchester area – including one who has suffered from PLP for 40 years – have used the virtual reality system over several weeks in a small-scale study. This initial project has produced startling results, with four out of the five patients reporting improvement in their phantom limb pain. Some improvements were almost immediate.
The Manchester team’s findings were recently presented at a major conference in Denmark on the use of virtual reality for rehabilitation. Project leader, Dr Craig Murray of the School of Psychological Sciences, said: 'One patient felt that the fingers of her amputated hand were continually clenched into her palm, which was very painful for her. However, after just one session using the virtual system she began to feel movement in her fingers and the pain began to ease.'