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Robotic Technology Improves Stroke Rehab

December 8, 2008

A new technology may buy stroke patients extra time to recover.

Using a new, hand-operated robotic device and functional MRI (fMRI), scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital have found chronic stroke patients can function normally again. fMRI maps the brain to track stroke rehabilitation.

“We have shown that the brain has the ability to regain function through rehabilitative exercises following a stroke,” A. Aria Tzika, Ph.D., Massachusetts General Hospital, was quoted as saying. “We have learned that the brain is malleable, even six months or more after a stroke, which is a longer period of time than previously thought. Our research is important because 65 percent of people who have a stroke affecting hand use are still unable to incorporate the affected hand into their daily activities after six months.”

It was previously thought that there was only a short window of three to six months after a stroke when rehabilitation could help a patient improve.

To find out if stroke rehab after six months was possible, researchers looked at five right-hand dominant patients who had strokes at least six months prior that affected the left side of the brain and, consequently, use of the right hand. Patients squeezed a special MR-compatible robotic device for an hour a day, three days a week for four weeks. They had fMRI before, during, and after they finished training, as well as after a non-training period. fMRI measures the tiny changes in blood oxygenation levels when a part of the brain is active.

Results showed rehabilitation using hand training significantly increased activation in the cortex — the area in the brain that corresponds with hand use. And the increased activation lasted in the stroke patients who had exercised during the training period but then stopped for several months.

The authors conclude these findings should give hope to stroke patients, their families, and the specialists who treat them.

SOURCE: Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago, Illinois, November 30-December 5, 2008

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