N.B. institute uses virtual reality to simulate real world in rehabilitation

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UNB using virtual reality to help patients with rehabilitation
WATCH: The University of New Brunswick is using state-of-the-art technology to help rehabilitate patients. It’s a virtual reality and only three places in Canada have it. Nathalie Sturgeon reports. – Apr 6, 2023

It’s technology some might say is in another reality — a virtual reality, that is.

The CAREN system — short for Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment — has a home at the University of New Brunswick’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering and is doing vital work to help rehabilitate patients.

“The CAREN system is a robotic platform that can move around in all sorts of different ways,” said John Sensinger, director of the IBME. “It has a wrap-around virtual reality screen so we can put people in interesting environments so they are not doing boring applications. But it is also a safe environment.”

The CAREN system has sensors to help measure movement during exercises. There are force plates on the floor of a treadmill at the centre of the system to show how much force patients are putting on their joints. In some simulations, patients can self-regulate the pace of the treadmill.

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The base of the treadmill itself moves left and right and up and down. A large wrap-around screen allows users to do their exercises in almost any simulated environment.

The CAREN system is at the University of New Brunswick’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering in Fredericton. Nathalie Sturgeon / Global News

Sensinger said the system also “enables us to quantify the performance continually and within a single visit but also across visits.” There are only three CAREN systems in Canada, he added.

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The system is very safe, with both safety measures built into the tech and a harness to give patients support through their exercises.

Sensinger said virtual reality can make a real difference for patients working to regain mobility following medical events such as a stroke.

“It’s really allowing us to explore questions that we have about best practices in rehabilitation, adaptive rehabilitation, how we can work together with patients, individual patients needs, individual patient capabilities,” he said in an interview on Thursday.

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Dr. Colleen O’Connell said rehabilitation works best when patients can replicate the function in an environment closest to one they may find themselves in.

“Technology like this helps to replicate and very closely mimic the real-world type of environment in a safe but also a very scientific way,” she said.

While showing a simulation, the team could change the background from a forest to a cityscape, allowing patients to see themselves in spaces they may visit over time.

The institute has done work with exo-skeleton robotic devices, too.

O’Connell said participating in research can also help patients feel like they are contributing and making a difference.

“Being able to participate in research, it offers hope and I think all of those things are very important for anyone going through a rehabilitation process,” she said.

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