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New Virtual Reality biomechanical facility launched at University of Melbourne

New Virtual Reality biomechanical facility launched at University of Melbourne

A new Virtual Reality (VR) biomechanical facility, which brings
together biomechanics, computer science and neuroscience to analyse human
movement and performance in real-time, has been launched at the University of
Melbourne. The facility aims to improve understanding of human movement and how
to treat and prevent injuries.

The Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN),
developed by Motekforce Link, was
launched on 15 February by Federal Minister for Health the Hon Greg Hunt. The facility is the first one of its kind in Australia.

CAREN features a dual belt treadmill that sits on a movable
platform, surrounded by a large curved screen projecting a VR scenario, placing
the patient in a city, street, forest or park. The platform can be tilted or
jolted back and forth in any direction. The two belts of the treadmill can be
moved independently to simulate tripping, and a harness prevents injury in the
event of a fall.

Sensors and motion capture cameras are used to create a
three-dimensional computer model of a patient’s body while they walk on the
treadmill, indicating the amount of joint motion and muscle loading in the
limbs in real-time.

Researchers can also measure the ground reaction force – the
force that occurs when people step, walk or run. In addition, they can collect
information about muscle and brain activity through methods like
electromyography (EMG) and electroencephalography (EEG). This enables the researchers
to analyse the effects of mental and physical strain.

Melbourne School of Engineering Dean Graham Schaffer said
the CAREN is distinct from other laboratories in that it simulates a field
environment.

“In a normal lab, you’re always going to walk a bit
differently. You cannot move the ground and get someone to trip, whereas here
you can do that in a safe environment,” Professor Schaffer said.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said, “CAREN has the potential to
change lives by using advanced technology to give people back their mobility.” 

University of Melbourne Acting Vice-Chancellor Mark
Considine commented that this facility will benefit researchers from a range of
different fields.

“The functionality of the CAREN is unique, and it is being
used by some of the best and most advanced clinical and research facilities in
the world. It’s a tremendous boost for Melbourne, allowing our researchers to
work more closely together on grand challenges such as ageing, rehabilitation
and mental health,” Professor Considine said.

Researchers Dr David Ackland, Deputy Head of the Department
of Biomedical Engineering, Professor Peter Lee from the Department of
Mechanical Engineering and PhD student Raneem Hadara oversee the lab.

Professor Lee said that the research
applications of CAREN can be separated into three different groups, rehabilitation,
sports medicine and defence. For example, in defence, the researchers are interested
in a load carriage system. When soldiers carry heavy loads, they want to
understand the effect of the load on soldiers’ joints and how to maximise
energy efficiency.

PhD candidate Raneem Haddara is studying anterior cruciate
ligament (ACL) injuries and whether protective braces can help prevent them.
These injuries are particularly common among female athletes. Previous studies
on braces have measured pre-planned movements but ACL injuries are caused by unanticipated
motion. With CAREN she can make those unplanned movements occur to try and mimic
the real-life situation.

Dr Ackland, who studies muscle and joint function in the
human body and how diseases or injury affect motor performance, said the CAREN
will help him understand how patients are responding to surgery and
rehabilitation. It will allow accurate evaluation of how people generate joint
motion pre- and post-operatively.

“For example, we can look at how a joint replacement is
affecting a person’s ability to move a joint after surgery, or how a stroke
patient’s balance and fall risk is affected by rehabilitation. The breadth of
applications is endless,” he said.

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