'Virtual hands' take stroke rehabilitation into a new realm, researchers believe

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3-D glasses soon might be seen in long-term care facilities as well as movie theaters, thanks to a potential breakthrough in stroke rehabilitation. Stroke survivors in a study successfully used a virtual reality system to activate parts of their brain linked to motor skills, researchers recently announced.

Investigators at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities conducted the study, which involved six stroke survivors. They used a virtual reality program that asked them to control a set of “photorealistic” hands with their brains: Simply by thinking about picking up a glass of water or tea, they could control the hands. They wore 3-D glasses to make the exercise more lifelike. The success rate in picking up the beverages was 81%, according to the researchers.

The process is similar to conventional therapy, in which a therapist moves a patient's arm or hand while asking him or her to think about performing the action, the team noted. Although a larger study is needed, the patients experienced improvement after just three, two-hour sessions. The researchers said the system could be affordable and used in conjunction with other common therapies.

The findings were presented Monday at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2013 in Dallas.