Giving paralysed stroke patients a set of thought-controlled virtual reality hands could help them regain movement of their limbs, scientists believe.
The sci-fi approach was developed to improve the rehabilitation of stroke victims by getting them to reactivate damaged regions of their brains.
Six patients watched a 3D video of arms and hands, creating the illusion that they were their own. Signals sent to a computer via electrodes attached to the head allowed the patients to move the limbs simply by using their imagination.
In as little as three two-hour sessions, the patients learned how to reach out to a glass of water with 81% accuracy.
The system is designed to help patients rehabilitate themselves, rather than relying on a therapist physically manipulating their limbs.
“Using a brain-computer interface, we’ve created an environment where people who may be too physically impaired to move can practice mental imagery to help regain use of their arms and hands,” said Alexander Doud, from the University of Minnesota, US, who led the study.
“During rehabilitation, usually a therapist will move the patient’s hand or arm in the desired direction while asking that patient to imagine they are making the movement. In this practice space, the patients can control photorealistic hands by thinking about using their own hands without actually moving at all.”
“The system is created in a way that could allow it to be used to practice a wide variety of desired activities, such as picking up a toothbrush or opening a jar, with very little additional work to set up the system,” Mr Doud added. “This can make it even more patient specific and that leads to patient motivation.”
The findings, presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions meeting in Texas, prove the feasibility of a new approach that could become an affordable rehabilitation tool, he said. However he stressed that the research still had to be replicated in a larger, more diverse population of patients.
“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, and the technology could be used along with commonly provided rehabilitation therapy for stroke,” said Mr Doud.
Rehabilitation therapy using physical movements and mental imagery has been known to help patients overcome paralysis even years after suffering a stroke.
Professor Ralph Sacco, from the University of Miami, former president of the American Heart Association, said: “Although this study may be about the future, we know now that physical therapy can improve outcomes after stroke.”
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