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Virtual Reality Games Help Stroke Survivors

They improve walking, brain function, new study finds

THURSDAY, May 12, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Virtual reality games improved the ability of stroke survivors to walk and also appear to have improved function in the damaged part of the brain, researchers report.

It was a small study, including just 10 people who had suffered strokes more than a year earlier. But the findings indicate that computerized game-playing could have a role in stroke rehabilitation programs, said lead study author Sung H. You, assistant professor of physical therapy at Hampton University, in Hampton, Va.

The findings are published in the May 13 rapid access issue of the journal Stroke.

All 10 stroke survivors had finished conventional physical therapy programs before the study began, You said, and "had reached their natural potential recovery."

The study used interactive games that are sold commercially. These games create a virtual reality scene and superimpose the patient's life-size body into the scene.

"They can choose their game," You said. "If a patient likes soccer, we use a soccer game. They stand in front of a big-screen television set, and a camera captures their motion. You can customize the program for the level of difficulty, depending on the performance of the patient, gradually increasing intensity in terms of speed and accuracy."

All of the participants had stroke-caused weakness on one side of the body. Five of them received the computer-assisted training one hour a day, five days a week for a month, while the others did not.

Tests showed an average improvement of 23 percent in the ability to walk 15 meters for those who played the virtual reality game, versus a 5 percent improvement for those who didn't play a game. And the ability to walk up four steps improved more than 17 percent in the virtual reality group, and not at all in the other group, the researchers said.

Imaging studies also showed an improvement in brain function after virtual reality participation. "After the intervention, the side of the brain that was damaged was activated, not 100 percent of normal but an improvement in function," You noted.

The Hampton researchers are now looking for funding to continue with their study. "We hope to work on a larger scale, perhaps in patients' homes," You said.

The new study offers more proof that computerized training can help stroke patients recover function, said Grigore C. Burdea, professor of computer engineering and director of the Human-Machines Interface Laboratory at Rutgers University, who has done similar work.

"Our laboratory developed prototype devices rather than using a commercial system," Burdea said. "When you develop your own technology you have more control over what is done, how it is done and how data is produced."

Working with physicians at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Burdea's group first added virtual reality training to conventional stroke rehabilitation therapy in 2002. That study "showed that we did produce functional improvement in chronic post-stroke patients by adding virtual reality to conventional therapy," Burdea said.

"Then we progressed to older chronic stroke patients, using only virtual reality," he said. "We developed four hand exercises to train fingers in range of motion, speed of motion, independence of motion and strength."

The results of that and other small-scale studies at Rutgers and the new Hampton report "are good news for the 4 million stroke survivors in the United States," Burdea said. "There is hope for recovery, even though under current medical arrangements therapy stops a few months after a stroke. We have shown that we can improve people's performance years after a stroke."

Similar results have been reported in small-scale trials at several institutions, Burdea said. "So far, all have been in small populations," he said. "Now information is starting to emerge that we are on the right track. The real proof will come when we do real clinically controlled multicenter trials on larger populations."

More information

For more on stroke rehabilitation, visit the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

SOURCES: Sung H. You, Ph.D., assistant professor of physical therapy, Hampton University, Hampton, Va.; Grigore C. Burdea, professor of computer engineering, Rutgers University, Piscataway, N.J.; May 13, 2005, Stroke
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