Stimulation technique could speed stroke patient recovery

Researchers at Southampton University are developing electrical stimulation techniques that could help stroke patients regain the use of their arms and hands faster and more effectively. 

The concept, which has received £464,231 from the EPSRC, would aid the rehabilitation of stroke patients who are taught to relearn everyday tasks through the use of virtual-reality computer games.

As stroke patients act out movements such as grabbing a tea cup, their muscles will be stimulated by electrical impulses from electrodes placed on the body. The impulses are designed to help stroke patients move, which is often difficult because nerves connecting their brain and muscles have been damaged.

The electrical impulses travel along the nerves in a similar way to electrical impulses from the brain. If stimulation is carefully controlled, a useful movement can be made.

Southampton’s team of researchers are aiming to combine the patient’s own effort with just enough extra electrical stimulation to achieve the movement. The work builds upon five years of research at the university.

Jane Burridge, a professor of restorative neuroscience and co-investigator on the project, said the team has already demonstrated that the technique works well when stimulating only one muscle and producing a simple movement.

‘What we’re doing now is a very different problem,’ she said. ‘We’re going to be stimulating a number of different muscles to open the hand, as well as to reach the arm forward. And, instead of doing it on a pre-determined, very tightly controlled trajectory, we’re actually going to do it with a free movement, with just minimal support from a sling.’

Burridge said this is much more like the real world. But in order to achieve this more free-flowing movement, the researchers will need to re-write new sets of control algorithms.

The control system will also be designed to provide users with sensory feedback, as most of their actions will be played out in a virtual-reality game.

Burridge said: ‘They don’t actually grasp objects so they don’t get normal touch feedback on their fingertips from picking something up. So we’re providing that by building sensory stimulation into the control system.’

The experimental work, which runs for three years from March 2011, will culminate in an eight-week clinical trial involving between five and eight stroke patients.

While not the original intention of the project, Burridge sees a commercial product as an eventual outcome.