Parkinson’s disease affects the motor areas of the brain, resulting in difficulty with movement. There is no cure for the disease, but new technology and research are providing methods to help patients get around easier by reducing the number of falls while walking, which can be debilitating or fatal.
A new study, published in the journal Neurology, assigned people with Parkinson’s disease to one of two 6-week training programs: exercise on a treadmill, or exercise on a treadmill while simultaneously engaging with a virtual reality environment. It wasn’t exactly the running and shooting often found in video games; instead, the participants had to adjust their steps to avoid obstacles and ignore distractions within the virtual environment projected on a screen around them. After training, their brains were scanned while they imagined navigating an environment within an fMRI scanner.
The people who trained with virtual reality had reduced activation in several key brain regions, compared to people who got exercise alone.
Wait, Virtual Reality Caused Reduced Brain Activation?
Does reduced brain activity mean virtual reality made things worse? No—this illustrates a counterintuitive result coming out of a lot of brain imaging research: reduced activation can be a good sign, because it shows the brain isn’t working as hard. It’s doing more with less. These results show that virtual reality helped people with Parkinson’s return to normal brain activation, rather than recruiting various brain resources in order to compensate for deficits. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that the virtual reality group improved in real-life measures of attention and walking speed. They also had fewer falls in the 6 months post-training, though due to the small sample size, that result was not statistically significant.
So is Virtual Reality the Brain Training Miracle We’ve Been Waiting For?
I’ve been critical of brain training before, so it will come as no surprise that I don’t see this as proof that brain training (in virtual reality or otherwise) is supported by science. Instead, it shows that practicing a specific skill has measurable effects on the brain regions involved in that skill, and improves performance of that skill later. Virtual walking helped the brain more efficiently drive real-life walking. That is a fantastic result, even if the training did not have generalized brain training effects on cognitive function, on motor function, or on other symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (none of which were measured in this study).
Of course, simple exercise is good for the brain and may have more far-reaching effects, regardless of the cognitive component provided by virtual reality.