Disney World Tech Being Used to Treat Phantom Limb Pain
Have you ever had a child or grandchild pull you in for a selfie? And have you ever looked at the screen of their camera to see that you're suddenly sporting a pair of Pixar-looking bunny ears or a dog's nose and tongue?
You're looking at augmented reality (AR).
AR is virtual reality's (VR's) younger cousin. It's technology that superimposes a computer-generated image onto a user's view of the real world, usually through a screen. That screen can be obvious or hidden. It all depends on the designer's desired effect.
Currently, the most common example of AR is the Snapchat filters I mentioned earlier. But one of the first instances of AR to hit the American public came from Disney World.
If you've visited Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, you may be familiar with the Haunted Mansion ride. At the end of the ride, as your Doom Buggy slows, you turn the corner for one last scare. It's a full-length mirror. And in it, you see that you've been joined by several transparent ghostly riders. It's a good gag, memorable, and a credit to Disney Imagineers.
But what sort of applications could AR have outside of social media gimmicks and theme park rides? It seems to have been shelved as a luxury technology that's fun and entertaining but lacks practical application.
That was until Dr. Max Ortiz Catalan of the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, published his paper on a breakthrough application of AR.
Dr. Catalan developed a theory for the treatment of "phantom limb pain" (PLP) in amputees. PLP is when amputees experience sensation in their missing extremities. This feeling can range from tingling to severe pain. Around 60% to 80% of amputees experience some form of PLP at some point.
The medical field still struggles to understand and treat PLP. But Dr. Catalan's theory is more sound than most. He believes this phenomenon is the result of something he calls "stochastic entanglement."
After an amputation, the neural network for that missing limb still exists in the brain. It's stopped processing input. But it remains possible that the now inactive network could become entangled with still functioning networks for other limbs. The result: a confused brain and some serious pain.
According to Dr. Catalan:
Imagine you lose your hand. That leaves a big chunk of "real estate" in your brain, and in your nervous system as a whole, without a job. It stops processing any sensory inputs, it stops producing any motor output to move the hand. It goes idle – but not silent…
Normally, sporadic synchronised firing wouldn't be a big deal, because it's just part of the background noise, and it won't stand out. But in patients with a missing limb, such event could stand out when little else is going on at the time. This can result in a surprising, emotionally charged experience – to feel pain in a part of the body you don't have. Such a remarkable sensation could reinforce a neural connection, make it stick out, and help establish an undesirable link.
Dr. Catalan has devised a new technique to manipulate and recalibrate the relationships between these neural pathways. And what's the best tool in his arsenal? Augmented reality.
Catalan's procedure consists of attaching electrodes to the end of the amputated limb and to the patient's brain. The signals from their brain are then read through a series of artificial intelligent (AI) algorithms and projected onto a laptop in front of them. The patient sees themselves with a full, virtual limb with fingers or toes that they're able to move.
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This allows the patient to reactivate those dormant or tangled parts of their brain. The sensation of regaining a lost limb can help the brain to disentangle those bungled, often painful neural pathways.
This breakthrough procedure is based on the properties of Hebb's Law. The rule that the "neurons that fire together wire together." By tricking the brain, even for a moment, into believing in the existence of a lost limb, those neurons begin firing separately again. And the phantom limb sensations are reset.
As Catalan explains: "It's a kind of 'inverse of Hebb's law' – the more those neurons fire apart, the weaker their connection. Or, it can be used preventively, to protect against the formation of those links in the first place."
Catalan's method is still in the trial stage. But his clinic has already seen some serious success in the reduction or total elimination of PLP. AR, a technology that once seemed destined only for gimmicks, is providing some credible relief. For sufferers, the future has never looked brighter.
Contributing Editor, Park Avenue Digest