Thought-Controlled Computer Hands May Aid Stroke Recovery

Virtual reality hands controlled by thought may help stroke patients recover the use of their limbs, according to a study testing whether the brain-computer system could be a new rehabilitation tool.

Six stroke patients had as much as 81 percent accuracy in reaching virtual hands to a glass of tea or water viewed on a computer screen, and they improved their skills in as few as three two-hour sessions, according to a report today at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions in Dallas.

Usually during stroke rehabilitation, therapists will move patients’ arms while asking them to imagine doing the movement themselves. The goal is to help re-establish connections between the brain and limb disabled by stroke. The technology allows patients to see virtual representations of their action, helping to sharpen the ability to create movement, said researchers led by Alexander Doud, chief technology officer at biomedical engineering design firm Synaptic Design, based in Minneapolis.

“This is an engaging system that encourages patients to practice using the areas of their brain that may have been damaged or weakened by their stroke,” he said in the statement.

The system was created to practice a variety of movements, including picking up a toothbrush and opening a jar, he said.

Doud was a master’s student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis when the study was conducted.

The stroke survivors wore 3-D glasses, which helped give them the illusion they were moving their own hands along with their thoughts. Because of the small sample, more work should be done in more patients, Doud said. However, the pilot study gives hints that this could be an affordable way to help stroke patients regain motion.

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