Virtual-reality game seeks to defeat pain

A local effort is launched to create a high-tech way to ease the suffering of sick or injured children facing painful medical procedures.

September 11, 2005|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

His head almost completely hidden by a virtual-reality helmet, 12-year-old Eli Modlin plunged his hand into a vat of painfully cold ice water as his mind slipped into another aquatic world.

Now a diver navigating the ocean floor, Eli watched sharks and giant sea turtles slowly circle above the swaying sea grass and colorful coral reefs just ahead. The only sounds he could hear were of his own breathing. The allure of buried treasure dominated his thoughts.

Only later did Eli realize what he hadn't felt for a long stretch - the pain from the icy cold water.

The virtual-reality game the Catonsville seventh-grader recently tested, called "Free Dive," is an experiment in a new kind of pain-control tool, one that a local firm and two partners are developing to help ease the suffering of sick or injured children who have to undergo painful medical procedures.

"They told us it might be used for times like when kids need chemotherapy, [which] made me feel like I was really helping," said Eli, one of a group of healthy child volunteers who put "Free Dive" through its paces at a University of Maryland, Baltimore County research lab one recent morning.

"Because it's under water, it's very relaxing," Eli said. "But it still gives you a challenge, since you have to locate the treasure chests" if you want to do more than sightsee and actually score points.

"Free Dive" is the latest attempt to use virtual-reality technology for a medical problem, although it's likely the first to target pediatric pain, leading researchers say.

Given the wide range of early successes that other VR researchers have logged - from helping people overcome fear of spiders to enabling burn victims to escape into a soothingly cold world while undergoing excruciating wound debridement - several experts say the game's concept is technologically sound. The commercial challenges, however, could be more difficult.

The VR game was created by Breakaway Ltd., a Hunt Valley-based computer game company, at the request of the Catonsville-based Believe in Tomorrow National Children's Foundation. UMBC pediatric pain expert Dr. Lynnda M. Dahlquist has been running the research program.

"It's potentially a very powerful tool to use," said Dr. Dennis Turk, a University of Washington clinical psychologist and president of the American Pain Society. Researchers "have made tremendous strides in a very short period. But, as an art form [in terms of] treating pain, we're actually still in the Stone Age," meaning the technology and treatments will continue to evolve.

While treatments for pain have existed since ancient times, it has only been in the past 25 years or so that pain treatment has emerged as a distinct medical discipline. The focus on pediatric pain came a bit later. Virtual-reality therapy has been a most recent development, said Dr. David R. Patterson, a University of Washington researcher who has been a pioneer in the medical uses of VR technology.

The scientific theory on which "Free Dive" and other VR treatments are based is known as pain distraction, said UMBC's Dahlquist, a clinical psychologist. While pain is a sensation - and an unpleasant one, at that - it's also a perception, or experience. Anything that can steal the brain's focus is likely to decrease the pain a patient feels, she said. "The idea is that, to perceive pain, part of the brain has to pay attention to it," Dahlquist said. "The brain can cut off pain or at least diminish it."

The idea of using a virtual aquatic environment, as opposed to another kind of distraction, stems from the role that stress - good or bad - plays in exacerbating pain. The upshot: A pain-distraction device will work best if it is soothing and relaxing.

With its calm pace and nonthreatening environment, the "Free Dive" game is a distraction in itself, said Brian R. Morrison, founder and chief executive officer of the Believe in Tomorrow foundation. Also, the VR helmet, by covering the player's eyes and ears and blocking the outside world, could help reduce the stress of anticipating a painful procedure, he said.

A privately held firm with about $12 million in revenue and slightly more than 100 employees, Breakaway is known for its additions to consumer game lines created by other companies, with titles including "Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom" and "Waterloo: Napoleon's Last Battle." It also has developed "expansion packs," which broaden the possibilities of an existing game, and modeling and simulation software for corporations, think tanks and government agencies.

The company agreed to forgo an estimated $500,000 in potential development fees to make "Free Dive" possible, though its motives weren't completely altruistic. It is trading the short-term fees for such possible future payoffs as product sales, and for the know-how the company gained.

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