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Video Game Therapy Helps Stroke Survivors Regain Arm Movement

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Stroke therapy for severely impaired patients may soon involve playing an '80s-style video game, thanks to an incredible new training device developed by scientists in Illinois.

A team of researchers from Northwestern University "game-ified" the therapy that stroke survivors usually undertake through a new device known as myoelectric computer interface (MyoCI) and found that almost all of the patients were able to experience movement again.

In fact, most of them regained arm function a month after completing the therapy, according to the study published in the journal Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.

Dr. Marc Slutzky, senior study author and neurologist at Northwestern Medicine, said the study is still in its very early stages, but they are hopeful that the device could be an inexpensive and effective new type of stroke therapy.

How The Video Game Therapy Works To Help Stroke Survivors

In the study, researchers focused on 32 stroke survivors whose physical functioning were severely impaired, which meant they could only slightly move their arm and extend their elbow. Most of them had their stroke at least six months before the study began.

Stroke survivors are often left with a bent elbow because of abnormal coupling of muscles, which makes it more difficult for them to adjust to task-based therapies, such as training to relearn to get dressed, take a bath, or eat.

To determine which muscles were abnormally coupled, the study participants tried to reach out to multiple different objects while the researchers used electrodes attached to the patients' skin to record electrical activity in eight of their arm muscles.

One example of an abnormal coupling of muscles was when the anterior deltoid muscles and biceps were activated even though they normally shouldn't, researchers said.

Here's where the video game comes in: the patients used the activity in their electrical muscle to control the cursor.

The abnormally coupled muscles would move the cursor either vertically or horizontally, in proportion to the EMG amplitude. For instance, if the anterior muscles contracted in isolation, the cursor would move to the side. If the biceps moved, the cursor would move up.

The goal is to move the cursor only vertically or horizontally, not diagonally, to reach the targets in the game. To get a high score, patients needed to learn how to disengage abnormally coupled muscles.

In the end, researchers found that patients regained arm function after they were classified into groups: one group had 60 minutes of training with their arm restrained, the second group had 90 minutes of training with their arm restrained, and the third group had 90 minutes without their arm restrained.

What's more, the patients could extend the angle of their elbows by 11 degrees more compared to before, which Slutzky said was a pleasant surprise. He said patients that are far out from stroke typically do not see improvements, but the results of the study saw modest but significant improvements.

Hope For A New Type Of Stroke Therapy

In the United States, only about 30 percent of stroke patients receive therapy after the initial rehabilitation because the treatment costs too much, the injury is too severe that standard therapy is inefficient, or the patients themselves are too far away from a therapist.

The new study hopes that it could lay the groundwork for inexpensive wearable therapy that patients can perform at home.

"Long-term, I envision having flexible, fully wireless electrodes that an occupational therapist could quickly apply in their office, and patients could go home and train by themselves," said Slutzky.

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