Can virtual reality play a part in the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease? A pioneering trial, launched in the North-East by a campaigning grandad, aims to find out. PETER BARRON reports

AT the far end of the room, retired probation officer John Woodhouse is wearing a futuristic white headset and becoming animated: “Oh, a helicopter! There’s a helicopter!” he shouts, ducking out of the way.

At the age of 81, John, who was diagnosed with vascular Parkinson’s Disease four years ago, is taking his first tentative step into the world of virtual reality (VR).

He's among those attending the launch of a North-East trial to test the impact of VR on the treatment of Parkinson’s. The trial has been inspired by fellow Parkinson’s Disease sufferer, Keith Wilson, who passionately believes it could have a significant impact on the treatment of the neurological condition.

“I'm thrilled to have got to this point, and I can't wait to see what results it produces,” says Keith.

Conducted in a small health and wellbeing studio on the site of Teesside International Airport, the trial is the latest chapter in a remarkable story of courage and resilience since Keith was diagnosed with the cruel brain disease in March 2020.

Once he’d got over the initial shock of the diagnosis, Keith has gone on to prove he’s not the kind of man to sit back and let Parkinson’s take its toll without putting up a fight.

So far, the intrepid grandad has embarked on a potent mix of long-distance running, cycling, rock climbing, and singing in a choir.

Each activity has been enthusiastically embraced in the belief that they help generate dopamine and adrenaline to help hold back the effects of the illness, with his epic efforts attracting national attention.

Most recently, while having fun on holiday with his teenage godsons, Keith discovered the wonders of virtual reality, and it’s gone on to add a new dimension to his Parkinson’s fight.

Whether it’s taking off in a space shuttle, exploring a shipwreck on the seabed, soaring over the Grand Canyon, or whizzing down a rollercoaster, he’s been able to generate heart-racing excitement and escapism from his own home at Middleton St George, near Darlington.

And once he saw how virtual reality transformed his own life, his thoughts immediately turned to how he could use it to help other Parkinson’s patients.

“I’m a 72-year-old man with Parkinson’s, so I don’t know how much longer I’ll have the energy to do things,” he says. “That’s why I wanted to get this experiment up and running as quickly as possible; to see what impact it could have on a wider scale.”

Keith launched a crowdfunding appeal that raised £4,500 to buy ten headsets, and to fund a 24-week programme of virtual reality classes at Vixi Wellbeing Support, on the airport site.

Each of the headsets has been given names – Bridie, Cicely, Denise, Dottie, Heather, Lindsay, Lorna, Nell, Peggy, and Phoebe – as a thank you to family members and supporters.

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“It’s been a real team effort to get this far,” he acknowledges.

The first 16 weeks of classes will be focused on Parkinson’s sufferers thanks to a £1,000 donation from Parkinson’s UK, with the hope that the programme will then be expanded to link up with Age UK, so it can include dementia sufferers, and people with other neurological conditions.

“It's starting in a relatively small way, but who knows how far it might go?” says Keith, who launched the trial with a gathering of supporters and potential participants just before Christmas.

“I’ve done quite a bit of research, and nothing’s been published on virtual reality in relation to the treatment of Parkinson’s, so it’s really exciting,” he says.

“There are a lot of experts watching to see what happens, and I think it will grow from here. It may not be for everyone, but it’s been transformational for me, and I believe it could have a massive impact.”

John Woodhouse and his wife, Veronica, attended a talk given by Keith to the Durham Parkinson’s Group, and were intrigued enough to attend the launch of the VR trial.

The couple have been married for 53 years and, while John is a self-confessed ‘technophobe’, Veronica – a former primary school teacher – loves technology.

“Our grandkids play games on the headsets but it’s the first time I’ve ever had one on,” says John. “It felt a bit strange, seeing the helicopter fly around, but I’m willing to give it a go to see if it can help me.”

“It’s worth a try, isn’t it?" adds Veronica. So, we’re definitely planning to come back for the classes,” adds Veronica.

The classes, starting on Monday, will be led by Victoria McFaull, a personal trainer with experience of working with people with a range of chronic illnesses.

“I think it’s going to be extremely interesting because, as well as physical exercise, those taking part will be getting mental stimulation,” says Victoria, who launched Vixi Wellbeing Support three years ago.

“Virtual reality means people can do whatever it was they used to enjoy before their diagnosis – they can go anywhere in the world.”

Victoria’s 17-year-old son, Nathan, is playing his part by using his gaming experience to set up the headsets with a variety of programmes, designed to maximise movement and stimulation.

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“I can definitely see how virtual reality might help because, if you can’t get out much, it enables you to enjoy all kinds of experiences,” says the Middlesbrough College student. “It can also be educational. For example, we’ve got a tour of Anne Frank’s house on one of the headsets.”

The trial is being closely monitored by Tees Valley Sport staff, based at the University of Teesside, so that the impact can be evaluated, and lessons shared.

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In the meantime, Keith will continue running, climbing, and singing for real – as well as embarking on his virtual reality adventures.

“I know it’s not going to get any easier but, if it hadn’t been for being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I wouldn’t have had so many new experiences, and had the chance to make a difference – not just to my life but, hopefully, others too,” he says.


  • Parkinson’s is the fastest growing neurological condition in the world, and, so far, there is no cure.
  • 1 in 37 people alive today in the UK will be diagnosed with Parkinson’s in their lifetime.
  • In the UK, around 153,000 people are already living with Parkinson’s.
  • With population growth and ageing, this is likely to increase to around 172,000 people in the UK by 2030.
  • Every hour, two more people are diagnosed. That’s the same as 18,000 people every year.
  • To find out more, go to