Virtual rehab helps after stroke

25 May, 2010

IRL has licensed the technology to Lower Hutt company Im-Able to commercialise and market. The new tools should also provide low-cost therapeutic benefit to others with upper limb and cognitive movement disorders such as those caused by spinal cord injuries.

Some 56,000 people in New Zealand live with the effects of strokes and, each year, 7,000 more suffer this debilitating illness. While many do recover, most need long-term care and their rehabilitation progress is typically very slow.

A big problem for stroke survivors during the rehab process is maintaining a regime of continuing exercise when they have limited arm improvement.

The survivor must maintain strength and also reconnect his brain to his arm. No low-cost devices exist to help the survivor exercise in a stimulating and purposeful way. Coupled with a loss of independence, the patient can easily feel discouraged.

Ways needed to be found for patients to take control of their own rehabilitation, thereby helping to restore hope and confidence, as well as reducing the huge associated healthcare costs.

IRL research engineer Marcus King, says, "In 2004, we put our minds to this question and began to look at how current technology could be applied to help people with disabilities regain their independence more quickly."

In partnership with Burwood Academy of Independent Living in Christchurch and with funding from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, King looked at introducing computer gaming into the rehabilitation process.

It was thought this would be valuable in the process of stroke rehab - making it easier to exercise longer and being both stimulating and rewarding by bringing focus and concentration to the task of completing a game. These are all known to improve rehabilitation outcomes.

The project developed computer games specifically for this purpose, along with new low-cost rehabilitation equipment to operate the games in a way that encourages exercise patterns for the patient.

One such piece of equipment is the Gerbil (pictured left), a giant computer mouse with custom-designed computer games for people with upper limb and cognitive movement disorders. This is a unique assisted therapy that uses virtual reality to increase the exercise effort required by normal table-based therapy.

It has been validated in clinical trials and is cost effective for the user. Performance feedback is provided to both patient and therapist - and it can be used by the patient independently of the therapist.

Sunil Vather, CEO of Im-Able, says the Gerbil mouse is an enjoyable, therapeutic tool that shows great promise in helping people with upper limb disorders.

Source: IRL