Using VR neurofeedback to help stroke patients recover

2nd February 2016
Nat Bowers

Imagine wanting to take a sip of your morning coffee. To accomplish this, your brain must send a signal that will pass from neuron to neuron all the way down your arm, to your hand, to your fingers. Your fingers will then grasp the coffee and bring it to your lips and then you can enjoy the caffeine fix.

When someone suffers a stroke, however, the brain is damaged and many of the neurons needed to control movement can be either damaged or missing altogether. This makes it difficult or impossible to move limbs. While traditional therapies might focus on having the patient practice moving their arms, hands and fingers to reactivate damaged neural pathways, this can be a nonstarter for someone with severe motor impairment who can’t move at all.

A better treatment might lie inside a VR headset, according to USC researcher Sook-Lei Liew, who was just awarded a $150,000 Innovative Research Grant from the American Heart Association to explore the possibility of using the immersive world of VR to create a brain-computer interface for the treatment of stroke victims.

Liew explained: “To regain movement ability after a stroke, survivors need to strengthen pathways from the brain to the muscles of the hand. This is difficult for people with severe motor impairments because they can’t see their hand move when they try to move it.”

To give stroke survivors the necessary visual feedback, Liew developed REINVENT - “Rehabilitation Environment using the Integration of Neuromuscular-based Virtual Enhancements for Neural Training” - which uses VR, as well as brain and muscle sensors, to show hand movement in the virtual world when the patient has used the correct brain and muscle signals even if the patient cannot move his or her hand in the real world.

“Our long-term goal would be for patients with severe motor impairment after stroke to be able to use REINVENT immediately after their stroke, in their hospital rooms in between therapy sessions and even when discharged if they are still experiencing motor impairments,” Liew said.

She added that even more importantly than being innovative, REINVENT is both portable and cost-effective, which could lead to more widespread adoption if successful.

“REINVENT and other portable home programmes allow the patients to augment traditional therapy with additional practice by themselves in a motivating environment even if they have little to no movement,” Liew said.

The American Heart Association Innovative Grant will fund Liew’s research through the end of 2017.

Liew is an assistant professor with joint appointments at the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy and in the neurology department at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. She joined the USC faculty in January 2015 and runs the Neural Plasticity and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory.

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