Some American diabetics may soon be using NASA virtual-reality technology to peer inside the human body and manage the effects of the disease.
Preliminary observations show that artificial-vision technology, used to help pilots train to fly in poor visibility, helps diabetics at risk for nerve damage visualize and control blood flow to the arms and legs.
In studies this fall, patients will use "biofeedback" -- self-control techniques, including changes in breathing and muscle flexing -- to increase their blood flow, which will be measured through sensors attached to their fingertips. The system will use skin-surface pulse and temperature measurements to create a computer-generated image of what is actually happening to blood vessels under the skin. Just as pilots use artificial vision to "see" into bad weather, patients will use this virtual reality device to "see" beneath their skin.
The graphics technologies used in the study have been used in cockpit artificial-vision systems to help pilots see in low- or no-visibility situations, and to help designers study air-flow patterns around new aircraft shapes. In this fall's studies, diabetes patients will wear a 3-D virtual-reality headset to "see" the contraction and expansion of their own blood vessels.
The studies will be conducted by the Strelitz Diabetes Research Institutes of the Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, VA. "What we have here is an immediate and direct, real-time visual appreciation of what's happening with blood flow," said Dr. Aaron Vinik, professor of internal medicine and director of research at the Strelitz Institutes.
Researchers intend patients to use such a device to train themselves to eventually sense and control their blood flow with no device whatsoever. Previous biofeedback methods, trained patients to do this by presenting them with physiological information in simple graphics, sometimes aided by separate mental-imagery training. Virtual-reality technology is proving to be more easily learned and motivating for patients and is expected to be more effective in teaching these skills by helping patients visualize real-time physiological responses.
Studies will also begin this fall in the Behavioral Medicine Center at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center, Charlottesville, VA, to evaluate the technology for the treatment of other blood-flow disorders. "If tests are successful, this technology may also be used to help sufferers of migraine headaches and other chronic blood-flow disorders," said NASA researcher Alan Pope. Pope and Kurt Severance, of NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA, are the inventors of the virtual-reality device.
The medical centers signed agreements with Langley's Technology Commercialization Program Office to test the NASA device. The office is part of an active NASA technology transfer program, established to move space-age technology from the laboratory to the marketplace. For more information, check the Internet at:
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