How Virtual Reality Will Change the Face of Healthcare

VR is Poised to Change Many Facets of Healthcare. Find out How. 


Gamers salivated in October of last year when Microsoft released a video of Project X-Ray, a mixed reality video game . A user was seen donning HoloLens goggles and a handheld device. Viewers could see the device turn into a cybernetic gun that encompassed the man’s hand and forearm, as if he was a cyborg. Soon, robots were breaking through the walls and attacking the user who was able to return fire and upgrade his weapon. The room was transformed into a futuristic battle zone. Virtual reality (VR) has come a long way since the 1990s. Today we stand at a tipping point, where VR is about to disrupt so many sectors such as research, sports, the military, education, entertainment, car manufacture, and even healthcare .  

According to research and consulting firm IndustryARC, augmented and virtual reality in healthcare is predicted to generate $2.54 billion globally by 2020 . Augmented reality is a mix of the real and virtual worlds, like Project X-Ray. With virtual reality, the entirety of the experience is digital. In healthcare, the two areas these technologies will be most utilized are training and rehabilitation .  

The Royal London Hospital will place its mark on history with a groundbreaking event coming April 14. This will be the first ever live broadcast operation in the world available on smart phone and VR headset. Specialized cameras will be perched high above the operating table allowing thousands of expected viewers to observe a British patient in his 70's undergo a colon cancer operation. Dr. Shafi Ahmed will be performing the procedure. The viewer will be watching the surgery almost as it occurs, at a mere one minute lag time. Dr. Ahmed is also experimenting with 360 degree cameras. According to the surgeon, the point is to allow medical professionals anywhere in the world the ability to see such videos and use them for training purposes.

Fully immersive 3D operating room simulations could be used to train young doctors in real life situations, helping them to gain experience, become more confident, and be able to make the snap decisions necessary in order to save lives. Some training simulations are already being offered. At the UC Davis Center for Virtual Care, heart catheterization is one of the many simulations available. Cardiologists-to-be perform on a mannequin named “Samantha” to give the student as close an experience to real life as possible, without putting anyone at risk . University officials say the center is not only for training greenhorns but for seasoned pros as well, to fine tune their skills and learn how best to run their medical team. Other virtual training applications include performing a colonoscopy, as well as endoscopic, laparoscopic, robotic, and organ transplant surgery .

Outside of training, virtual organ models can help surgeons prepare for a delicate or complicated procedure. This is thought to increase precision, decrease complications, and reduce trauma . Sometimes a patient needs a rare, lifesaving procedure the surgeon has no experience in. VR can be used to help the physician understand how to perform one in minutes . In addition to simulations, planning, and training, virtual diagnostics, and research models are on the horizon. VR isn’t just changing the face of medicine for doctors however, but patients as well.

For amputees, phantom limb pain is a serious issue. This is where the brain continues to send signals to the missing arm or leg, causing shooting pains, or a burning, itching, tingling, or electric sensation. Some amputees have even said that they can feel an itch in the palm of their missing hand. There is no way of shutting this phenomenon off .

Researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden conducted one experiment with an amputee. They placed electrodes on what was left of the patient’s missing arm. A VR headset was given to the patient, who was able to see that arm guiding a steering wheel as he virtually drove a car. The one patient this technique was tested on reported less pain overall, and even some long stretches without pain at all during the course of treatment.

In mental health, VR has already been used to help phobia patients get over their worst fears through exposure therapy. PTSD sufferers have been targeted for VR therapy since the 90s. Now, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy that allows traumatic memories to be recalled and reframed through certain eye movements, can be combined with VR. But how this will occur is not completely clear. Some hospitals are already using VR to put veterans back into battlefield situations in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to help them understand and come to terms with their memories and move past them.

Breathing control, meditation, and VR games such as Deep, which utilizes biofeedback, help patients relax, control their breathing, and reinforce a positive attitude and so lessen pain. Another VR game called SnowWorld, developed by psychologist Hunter Hoffman, helps patients forget their pain by exploring a magical, snowbound environment drenched in the music of Paul Simon. One 2011 study of soldiers who had endured burns from an IED attack found that SnowWorld was more effective a pain reliever than morphine. In that, it has applications for chronic pain management too.  

Other places VR may be used include brain damage evaluation and rehabilitation, social training for those with autism, and help for the homebound and disabled . Though already earmarked for a variety of healthcare settings, applications are just beginning. Soon seamless integration between VR and so many other innovations such as big data, AI, and others will bring the future of healthcare to a medical center near you .  

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.