Expert to VR Symposium: Virtual reality can heal brain without medication

Nataleah Small

Mind over matter is said to be the key to better health– and, according to experts, virtual reality technology is now being used to help the human brain solve a variety of the body’s health issues without medication.

William Warren, Vice President and Head of Innovation Programs at Sanofi Pastuer, the vaccines division of a multi-national pharmaceuticals company, described this innovation in a speech at the Lory Student Center last Friday. Colorado State University designated Oct. 19-23 Virtual Reality Week, which included lectures and demonstrations about the technology, as well as a virtual reality development “hackathon.”

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Warren’s speech highlighted how virtual reality advancements pioneered by Sanofi Pasteur are being used within the medical community to treat patients suffering from a variety of health issues, including allergies.

The company recently conducted research on the use of VR headsets and games in the healthcare system as alternatives to medication, specifically to treat cases of allergies to cats. Warren said VR allows the company to develop solutions to medical issues in a quick and cost-efficient way.

“(We want to) see if we can change the paradigm from a doctor-prescribed health care system to a system in which you can tap into your internal pharmacy, which is your brain,” Warren said.

To combat an allergen, the body must build up a tolerance to it. Researchers learned that patients could build up a tolerance to their allergies after increased exposure to cats in an immersive virtual reality simulation.

Participants were introduced to virtual cats one by one until they were able to interact with cats outside of the simulation.

The simulation was based on research that examined the findings of a recent three-phase trial. In 60 percent of cases, a placebo drug helped patients combat cat allergies.

This led researchers to conclude that the brain is able to combat allergens with only its “internal pharmacy,” and without the addition of added chemicals or medications.

Warren said that the brain is able to tap into its “internal pharmacy” when the vagus nerve, part of the parasympathetic nervous system, is stimulated by an immune response. The parasympathetic nervous system contributes to the involuntary nervous system, which controls bodily functions such as heart rate and digestion.

“(You can) tap into the parasympathetic system where you have an overactive immune response from allergies,” Warren said.

Besides combating allergens, Warren said, VR can be used in a variety of medical settings. It can be used to help individuals with anorexia or binge eating disorders gain an accurate self-image, and to address cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in the military by creating safe, engaging simulations.

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Warren said that the wide variety of uses for this technology is changing the way the medical community addresses disease.

“You can really accelerate the pace of innovation by tapping into your internal pharmacy,” Warren said.

Warren said that these innovations are important because though over 7,000 diseases currently have treatments, less than 500 have vaccines. He said that although vaccines save 3 million lives per year, it is very difficult to develop a new vaccine and introduce it into the market.

From early development to licensing and marketing, the process of developing a new vaccine takes between 12-20 years and costs between $1-2 billion. Sanofi Pasteur administers about one billion vaccines to 500 million people per year.

Warren said the virtual reality technology is an appealing alternative to traditional vaccinations because it is non-invasive and non-chemical. 

Alan Rudolph, Vice President for Research at CSU, said VR is currently a hot topic. Rudolph is also a program manager for the Walk Again Project, which is a nonprofit collaboration between seven universities internationally that seeks to use virtual reality-controlled robotics to help people suffering from paralysis to walk again.

Rudolph said VR technology utilizes all of the senses and transports people to an immersive environment.

“(Virtual reality) is not a revolution of technology, (but) a revolution of perception,” Rudolph said.

Collegian writer Nataleah Small can be reached at blogs@collegian.com or on Twitter @NataleahJoy.