An innovative rehabilitation approach uses virtual environments to simulate functional tasks, allowing repetitive exercise training for stroke victims.

In a new study, Sergei V. Adamovich, Ph.D., and colleagues at the New Jersey Institute of Technology used interactive video game-based therapy to improve hand and arm function among individuals who had suffered a stroke.

“In virtual environments, individuals with arm and hand impairment practiced tasks such as reaching and touching virtual objects. They took a cup from a shelf and put it on a table, hammered a nail, and even played a virtual piano,” Adamovich said.

Even years after a stroke occurs, people with disabled limbs still sometimes show improvement with therapy. Though recent studies have shown recovery is possible, researchers aim to further improve the speed and fluidity of motor control.

In this study, 24 participants who had a stroke at least six months prior to therapy practiced with the video game for about 22 hours over a two-week period. With the aid of a robotic arm, individuals attempted increasingly difficult tasks. Adamovich and his colleagues observed that the volunteers moved their hands faster over the course of the tests.

The researchers also examined whether therapy changed the participants’ brains to improve motor functions. In ongoing trials, the authors used transcranial magnetic stimulation and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to map connections in the volunteers’ brains as they underwent rehabilitation.

“Our preliminary data suggest that, indeed, robot-assisted training in virtual reality may be beneficial for functional recovery after chronic stroke,” Adamovich said.

“Furthermore, our data imply that this recovery may be particularly due to increased functional connections between different brain regions.”

Source: Society for Neuroscience