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Magazine section: Frontiers  

Virtual workout beats the boredom for stroke patients

New Scientist vol 177 issue 2385 - 08 March 2003, page 20


PEOPLE who 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.

Bizzi says 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.

Riten Jaiswal, 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 parachuting.


James Randerson

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