Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine discovered how to use robotic and video game technology to help chronic stroke patients learn new motor skills.
A piece of robotic equipment was wrapped around the patient’s dominant arm, holding it up for them so that gravity would not be burden.
Holding their arm at a 90-degree angle, patients played a game designed to help strengthen the muscles surrounding the elbow. Patients had to move a cursor across a series of screens and into small target windows in time with a metronome. They completed nine blocks during ten trials at different speeds: 24, 30, 38, 45, 60, 80, 100, 110, and 120 beats per minute.
The second part of the training session lasted for four consecutive days. Patients had to complete 30 trails of five blocks at their own pace, but were encouraged to improve their speed throughout it.
Depending on the severity of the stroke, survivors are left with difficulties in speech, feeling sensation, balance, and motor functions, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. It may also lead to partial or total paralysis. Strokes occur when the blood supply in the brain is blocked or a blood vessel ruptures.
While patients are unable to recover lost functions, new skills can be learned.
“What we found is that physical rehab is not going to change the weakness caused by damaged brain cells in chronic patients, but it is going to change how well they can perform certain tasks, which can have a huge impact on a patient’s daily life,” says Pablo Celnik, M.D. of Johns Hopkins Medicine.
At the end of the training session, each group’s skill level showed improvement. By the third and fourth days of training, all of the participants’ improvement plateaued. However, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, “The study showed that there was considerable overlap between the post-training performance of the stroke patients and the pre-training performance of groups with less impairment.”
Dr. Robert Hardwick of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said that the post-training mild-to-moderate group cannot be distinguished from the pre-training control group.
While he advised patients to not create false expectations for recovery, he also advised them to remain hopeful.
“This is good news for patients because it means that even when there is little likelihood of further neurological recovery, it means I can still teach them new tasks through training,” says Celnik.
“What is important is to not create false expectations of neurological recovery, while at the same time being hopeful that patients can learn within the boundaries of their neurological deficit to improve their lives.”