Virtual reality could help stroke patients recover by ‘tricking’ them into thinking their affected limb is more functional than it really is. Researchers in Spain found that making the affected limb appear more effective on screen increased the chance the patient would use it in real life.
This is important because stroke victims often underuse their affected limbs, making them even weaker. In the study of 20 stroke patients, researchers sometimes enhanced the virtual representation of the patient's affected limb, making it seem faster and more accurate, but without the patient's knowledge.
After the episodes in which the limbs were made to seem more effective, the patients then went on to use them more. "Surprisingly, only 10 minutes of enhancement was enough to induce significant changes in the amount of spontaneous use of the affected limb," said Mrs. Rubio from the Laboratory of Synthetic, Perceptive, Emotive and Cognitive Systems at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain.
This therapy could create a virtuous circle of recovery, in which positive feedback, spontaneous arm use and motor performance can reinforce each other. Experts say the results of this pilot study suggest that the power of virtual reality could be used in the future to help stroke patients build confidence in using their weakened limb, and therefore promote their recovery. However, larger trials would be needed to establish whether this is possible.