SUNDAY, Nov. 17, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- A small study suggests there could one day be a role for "virtual reality" in helping stroke survivors regain use of their arms or hands.
It may sound like science fiction, but the study found that "brain-computer interface" technology allowed the participants to move a virtual reality hand using just their thoughts.
Strokes occur when a blockage in an artery cuts off the brain's blood supply, or when a ruptured vessel causes bleeding in or around the brain. Stroke survivors can be left with various impairments, depending on what part of the brain is affected, including problems moving, seeing, speaking or thinking and remembering.
In recent years, big advances have been made in helping people survive the initial stroke, said Dr. Ralph Sacco, chairman of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School.
"But we need more novel strategies for stroke recovery," he said.
The new findings, scheduled for presentation Monday at the American Heart Association's annual meeting in Dallas, are preliminary and only suggest that virtual reality could be used in stroke rehabilitation.
But the study may be offering a "peek into the future," said Sacco, who is also a former heart association president.
For the study, Alexander Doud and colleagues at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis recruited six people who were left with hand and arm paralysis after suffering a stroke. They outfitted each person with a cap of electrodes and had them sit with their arms inserted into a "stimulus box." When the participants looked down, wearing special 3-D glasses, they saw virtual reality hands.
The researchers then asked them to use their thoughts to move either the right or left hand toward a virtual glass of water. The participants had varying success, but overall, the group was able to improve their skills in as little as three two-hour sessions -- and worked up to as high as 81 percent accuracy.
What does it all mean? That will take a lot more research, said Doud, who is a medical student and chief technology officer at a biomedical engineering firm called Synaptic Design.
"Brain-computer interface is a young technology," Doud said. This study, he stressed, was just looking at whether it's a feasible approach for stroke patients.
Right now, Doud explained, stroke patients with paralyzed hands or arms can meet with a rehab therapist who will ask them to imagine moving the limb and then move it for them. The idea is to work the area of the brain involved in that movement.
Doud said that a virtual-reality system could accomplish the same thing, but in a potentially simpler, less expensive way. With advances in the technology, it's possible that people could one day use it at home on their own computers, Doud said.
That, of course, is a long way off, he said. And it would be an addition to traditional rehab with a therapist -- not a replacement.
Sacco called this "an interesting, innovative study." He agreed that the technology might one day help "augment" traditional physical therapy, but added there are still many questions.
The benefits of the system, if any, might vary widely from patient to patient, depending on their age, the area of the brain damaged by the stroke, and how much time has passed since the stroke, Sacco pointed out.
And then there's the most important question, he said: Does virtual reality actually speed or enhance people's recovery from their disability?
Doud agreed. "The big question we have to answer is, does this make a difference in motor [movement] recovery?"
For now, Sacco said, stroke survivors with impairments should remember that they do not have to wait for new technology. "We know that 'garden-variety' physical therapy, even six months or more after the stroke, can aid recovery," he said.
Research presented at meetings is typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
The National Stroke Association has more on stroke recovery.