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Virtual Reality (VR) has been an area of rising interest in recent years, due to its wide range of applications, namely in the biomedical field. This emerging technology simulates a digital 3D environment that provides a sense of presence in a virtual world, by using an immersive display device (e.g. head-mounted display) and an interactive device (e.g. joystick, glove). VR environments are commonly associated with gaming, however, they have been used in numerous biomedical contexts such as rehabilitation, training and biomedical imaging.
Neurocognitive disorders (NCDs) such as Alzheimer’s, vascular or Parkinson’s diseases, affect the cognitive and emotional behaviours, resulting in irreversible damage in thousands of individuals. VR has been successfully used in elderly people who had a NCD to improve their autonomy and ability to perform daily-life activities. Indeed, VR was proven to have a positive effect not only in different cognitive levels (for instance memory, dual tasking and visual attention), but also in psychological functioning (reduction of anxiety and improvement of well-being).
Another interesting area where the VR technology is implemented is orthopaedic rehabilitation, especially after trauma or surgery. For instance, immediately after surgery, the rehabilitation process begins, providing patients a combination of progressively harder exercises, so as to speed up the recovery, while strengthening the muscles and joint movement. Moreover, these treatments not only reduce the hospitalization time and costs, but also increase the number of patients that may be treated at the same time.
Figure 1 – Virtual Reality in rehabilitation
Additionally, VR can also be a complement of image processing techniques, with the goal of predicting and monitoring different surgery procedures. VR applications, such as surgery simulation, have been used in surgeon training, maximizing the probability of a positive outcome. Likewise, it can be used to provide the user a whole new perspective of the human body, where one can manipulate 3D models of anatomical structures, on a real scale. In fact, users can deeply interact with the models, which enables the visualization and understanding of complex inner structures. This system can also be managed by medical professionals to improve the clinical diagnosis of several issues.
Figure 2 – Virtual Reality platforms for visualizing human body components (left and center) and manipulate them (right)
Other VR applications worth mentioning include psychiatric therapies, such as phobia treatment and training for regulation of emotions and social skills in autism. Furthermore, VR-assisted platforms for biological data visualization have been developed. The user can easily and intuitively interact with intricate biological molecules, which aids the visual analysis of DNA/RNA/protein sequences and protein structures.
Although VR has proven to play an important role in the medical field, current advances in technology ensure its further development and promising future in this area. Moreover, VR has become a very attractive area in marketing, which decreases its investigation cost, while spreading this technology rapidly.
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