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Bringing virtual reality to medicine at Temple

Gamers, armchair travelers and sci-fi fans are all embracing virtual reality. Now researchers at Temple University are pursuing medical applications for realistic, computer-simulated environments.
Dr. Alessandro Napoli, a bio-engineer at Temple, recently spoke at the University City Science Center's Quorum about how this promising technology could aid in weight loss and provide stress reduction during cancer treatment.
In 2012, working under the direction of Dr. Antonio Giordano of the Sbarro Health Research Organization, researchers used avatars to teach and demonstrate healthy diet and exercise habits. In settings like home kitchens and supermarkets, the avatars modeled healthy choices. Though the sample was small, participants said the approach helped them change their behavior and resulted in weight loss.
The second project studied the use of virtual reality during chemotherapy treatment of breast cancer patients in southern Italy. It is well known that music relieves anxiety for patients receiving chemo. What if, instead, they wore headsets that simulated relaxing 3-D images such as tropical scenes, forests or mountains?
The researchers compared music and virtual reality applied for five minutes before, 20 minutes during, and another five minutes following treatment. Measuring several physiological responses including heart rate, the researchers found that virtual reality was as calming as music. The virtual reality patients also reported that they perceived their chemo sessions as much shorter -- a positive outcome.
More research is needed, said Napoli, but with minimal training requirements "this is a great tool to introduce to clinical practice."
Napoli also presented work on a system to assess balance control and determine fitness to return to active military duty following a head injury. The system is being developed with Dr. Iyad Obeid, a Temple engineering professor, using Microsoft Kinect motion capture technology and basic computer equipment.
Balance problems can indicate brain injury. In hospitals, balance is assessed using large, complex and expensive equipment that is unsuitable in the field. The alternative is often a subjective visual assessment.
Napoli’s field system can provide visual images of 25 joints and other measures to assess balance with no need for complex equipment or highly trained operators. Over the next few years, the researchers will test the system in actual field conditions using Temple athletes and ROTC students.

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
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