Thought-controlled virtual reality hands could help paralysed stroke patients regain movement of their limbs, scientists believe.
Using a brain-computer interface six stroke victims were able to control photorealistic 3D images of a pair of hands by simply thinking about moving their hands thanks to electrodes attached to their heads which sent signals to a computer.
The approach allowed patients to practice mental imagery to help reactivate damaged regions of their brains controlling the use of their hands and arms and users learned how to reach out to a glass of water with 81 per cent accuracy in as little as three two-hour sessions.
"Using a brain-computer interface, we've created an environment where people who may be too physically impaired to move can practice mental imagery to help regain use of their arms and hands," said Alexander Doud, a medical student from the University of Minnesota, USA, who led the study.
"During rehabilitation, usually a therapist will move the patient's hand or arm in the desired direction while asking that patient to imagine they are making the movement. In this practice space, the patients can control photorealistic hands by thinking about using their own hands without actually moving at all."
The findings, presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions meeting in Texas, prove the feasibility of a new approach that could become an affordable rehabilitation tool, Doud said.
"The system is created in a way that could allow it to be used to practice a wide variety of desired activities, such as picking up a toothbrush or opening a jar, with very little additional work to set up the system," he added. "This can make it even more patient specific and that leads to patient motivation."
But Doud, who is now chief technology officer at biomedical engineering and human factors design firm Synaptic Design, said that while the study did point to the feasibility of the method the small sample size means results need to be replicated in a larger, more diverse population of stroke patients.
"This is an engaging system that encourages patients to practice using the areas of their brain that may have been damaged or weakened by their stroke, and the technology could be used along with commonly provided rehabilitation therapy for stroke," said Doud.
Rehabilitation therapy using physical movements and mental imagery has been known to help patients overcome paralysis even years after suffering a stroke.
Professor Ralph Sacco, from the University of Miami, former president of the American Heart Association, said: "Although this study may be about the future, we know now that physical therapy can improve outcomes after stroke."