How virtual reality could soon help stroke victims recover

A $100 million investment in a Swiss startup highlights how VR offers more than just fun and games.

Garo/Phanie Sarl/Corbis

Doctors could soon start prescribing an unusual solution to help stroke victims in the US: virtual reality goggles.

That's the hope of Switzerland-based MindMaze, which on Wednesday got a $100 million investment to bring its blend of virtual reality hardware and neuroscience to market. The four-year-old startup's technology has already won approval from regulators in Europe, where its applications for brain injury victims showcase what could soon be possible in the United States.

MindMaze's 34-year-old founder and CEO Tej Tadi explains how: Imagine a stroke victim who's lost control of her left hand but can still move her right hand. After putting on MindMaze goggles, the patient sees a 3-D image, or avatar, of her left hand that moves as she moves her right hand.

"That triggers areas in the brain to say, 'Wait, let's regain control of this hand'," says Tadi. "

The hand that was not working now works

." And that process of tricking the brain into seeing something that's actually not there in the real world accelerates recovery, he says.


Already in use in Europe, virtual reality technology could be used to treat stroke victims in the US this year.

Garo/Phanie Sarl/Corbis

This is the year that VR is set to take off. Almost every major tech company -- from Samsung and HTC to Facebook's Oculus and Sony -- has either released a VR headset or plans to do so. Their investments, as well as those made by smaller but well-funded startups like Jaunt, NextVR and Magic Leap, are expected to change the way we play video games and how we watch sports, presidential debates, porn or a Hollywood movie.

The investment in MindMaze, led by multinational conglomerate Hinduja Group, underscores just how VR could shake up medicine. In fact, Hinduja's nine-figure bet places MindMaze, a 55-person company, among the top three best-funded virtual reality startups in the world, according to PitchBook, a venture capital research firm.

"If there's a short list of areas where virtual reality will be really helpful or usable, health care is on that list," says Brian Blau, vice president of research at information technology research firm Gartner.

For Blau, who's been studying virtual reality since the 1990s, the potential impact on health care makes sense. VR works by tricking the brain into believing what it's seeing is three-dimensional and, often, lifelike. More than most other professions or markets, health care demands realism.

"There's so much that needs to be immersive," says Blau.

Since the 1990s, virtual reality has been used to help patients suffering from phobias overcome their fears. One early study showed how VR was a useful tool to help overcome fears of spiders.

Now, the increasingly powerful displays in VR goggles are helping emergency room doctors prepare for situations that are dangerous, costly or simply impossible to replicate in real life.

For example, instead of using actual cadavers, medical students can "work through mock surgeries" in VR, according to PitchBook, whose 2015 report concluded "the use of VR to provide zero-risk environments to conduct training can be invaluable."

To be sure, health care will still play a smaller role in VR than gaming or entertainment, according to Gartner. Only 8 percent of the 121 venture capital investments in virtual reality startups in 2014 and 2015 went to health care projects, according to Pitchbook.

But for millions of Americans suffering from brain injuries and looking to regain control over their limbs, 2016 could be more than just the year that playing Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto got a lot cooler.

MindMaze won't say how much its device and software will cost in the US. (In Europe, the company's service costs upwards of $30 per month for individuals). But CEO Tadi is confident his solution will soon be in the hands, or on the heads, of patients.

"In 2016, they'll have an FDA-approved medical-grade virtual reality device in clinics," says Tadi.

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