Réalité virtuelle

Virtual reality, the new painkiller

Immerse the patient in the heart of an enchanted forest to counter the pain rather than increase the doses of painkillers ? This is the proposal made to health institutions by Healthy Mind, a start-up created in Strasbourg by three young engineers. Coming from Mines Télécom, with a Health specialization for the first two, Reda Khouadra, Malo Louvigné and Timothée Cabanne, 24 years old each, developed their virtual reality software while preparing for their master in business administration, in 2017, at the Strasbourg School of Management. Labeled medical device, the program earned them awards by the University of Adelaide (Australia) and then to be among the fifteen winners, out of 388 candidates, of a call for expression of interest “Hospital of the Future” launched by the Assistance publique-Hôpitaux de Paris (AP-HP).

“We offer a contemplative mode, in which the patient makes a guided journey, and an interactive mode, in which he can play music, paint, solve a riddle,” explains Reda Khouadra, managing director and designer of the graphic worlds he first imagined for a loved one suffering from a chronic illness. Japanese garden, undergrowth populated by animals or snowy mountain in which we immerse ourselves in 3D and 360°, the animated worlds that he” sculpts ” suggest appeasement and comfort through perspectives, textures, colors and sound atmospheres created by Malo Louvigné, technical director.

The interest of scientists in virtual reality as a means of reducing anxiety and suffering, like hypnosis, goes back twenty years. The American Hunter G. Hoffman, professor at the University of Washington, had notably demonstrated in 2000 its benefits on burn victims. And neuroscience has shown that, if pain proceeds from the uplift of signals sent, from receptors to the brain, it can, in return, under the effect of other stresses, send messages reducing or inhibiting suffering.

Decreased anxiety… and painkillers

The evolution of technologies with the improvement and lower price of virtual reality headsets, but also the attention paid to the fight against pain, decreed priority of public health in France since 2004, explain the interest that the hospital now carries. “It is a support that brings comfort to the patient by allowing a decrease in anxiety and doses of analgesic,” says Doctor Olivier Ganansia, head of emergencies at Saint-Joseph Hospital, in Paris. The private non-profit group, the first purchaser of a Healthy Mind license-the purchase of the computer and the headset remains the responsibility of the user – uses it for painful gestures such as shoulder dislocation, lumbar punctures, sutures or urinary tube installation.

“The reduction of the need for morphine and narcotic drugs, which have many harmful effects, will be the major concern in anesthesia in the coming years”, corroborates Catherine Bernard, anesthesiologist-resuscitator at the Bicêtre Hospital who has been practicing hypnosis for seven years. “In a complementary way to hypnosis, virtual reality can offer a ‘beautiful escape’ through sensory immersion, ” she adds, highlighting the role of “therapeutic” suggestions-bringing feelings of safety, pleasure or comfort-included in the environments created by the young company.

“The patient gradually calmed down. We saw her blood pressure drop, her heart rate decrease, ” says in a video Dr. Hélène de Solminihac, who experimented with the software in the palliative care unit she runs, at the Pasteur-Lanroze clinic in Brest. With the creation of new universes, the taking into account in real time, by the virtual world, the physiological parameters of the patient, or biofeedback, is one of the evolutions on which Healthy Mind is working, “but the possibilities for improvements are limitless”, believes Timothée Cabanne, president of the company, referring to the prospects offered by artificial intelligence.

Gilbert Reilhac and Yves Clarisse for Reuters

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