have suffered a partial loss of arm and hand control after a
stroke might soon be spared the arduous trip to the hospital
for physiotherapy. Instead they'll be able to log on to the
Internet at home and run through the rehabilitation exercises
designed by their doctor.
The heart of
the idea is a virtual reality system linked up to the Net that
encourages patients to retrain their disabled arm by making a
computer image of an arm perform various movements. Designed
by Emilio Bizzi and Maureen Holden at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, the system is geared towards stroke
patients who need to practise repetitive exercises to regain
some arm mobility.
To use the
system the patient dons lightweight VR goggles and wraps
motion-sensor cuffs on their upper and lower arm, and on the
back of their hand. By moving their arm, they can move a
virtual arm on screen. The aim is to copy the movements made
by a virtual training arm, which demonstrates the exercise a
doctor has chosen. The computer then calculates a score for
how well the patient mimics the training arm, and emails the
result back to the doctor.
In tests with
nine stroke patients who had received physiotherapy but were
no longer showing any signs of improvement, eight increased
their movement range using the system. And shoulder muscle
strength and grip strengthwere both boosted by over 100 per
cent on average.
that patients using the VR system are more motivated to
improve because the exercises are less of a chore. "It becomes
a game to beat your previous score," he says. As the patient
improves, the doctor can set progressively harder tasks such
as posting a virtual letter. This requires gripping, reaching
and wrist-twisting simultaneously.
a spokeswoman for Irex, a company based in Port Jefferson, New
York, that produces interactive rehabilitation systems, says
it is essential to make rehabilitation fun. "It takes the
monotony out of it," she says. Irex's therapy is used in
clinics, rather than the home. It lets people more able than
those MIT is trying to help see themselves on a large TV
screen in exciting environments like snowboarding or