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Virtual hands, controlled by thoughts, may help survivors of stroke recover the use of their hands, researchers say. The technology may also help people who have lost the use of their hands to other kinds of injury.

Using a brain-computer interface, biological engineers have created "virtual reality hands" that may help survivors of stroke and other kinds of injury to the brain and spinal cord regain use of their arms and hands.

Brain-computer interface technology can tell doctors and therapists whether rehabilitative exercises are activating parts of the brain associated with better recovery.

In a small scale clinical trial led by engineer Alexander Doud,  a medicals school student., presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2013, survivors of stroke were able to use mental imagery to retrain their brains to move their arms and hands even while their arms and hands were too weak to move on their own.

Mental commands were conducted through a brain-computer interface that looks something like a hair net, an EEG (electroecephalograph) cap that detects changes in brain waves that it transmits to the simulation. When the user imagines a movement, specific neurons in the brain generate an electrical current. The electrodes in the EEG cap transmit signals to a computer that generates images that correspond to the desired movement.

Doud's technology is completely non-invasive. No one has to have a chip or an eletrode implanted in the brain to make use of the brain-computer interface. The device is only worn as needed, and no part of the EEG penetrates the brain, skull, or even scalp, although glue used to hold the electrodes in place can be messy and hard to wash out of the hair.

In Doud's experiment, commands from the brain-computer interface were used to conduct a virtual reality game, but in other tests the brain-computer interface has been used to give direct commands to a service drone or a robot.

Doud told the press that the new virtual hands technology provides patients with a "practice space" that they can use without physically moving their hands at all. In traditional physical therapy for stroke victims, the physical therapist moves patients' hands or arms while asking them to imagine moving them on their own power. In the virtual hands program, patients control realistic-looking images of hands with the power of their own thoughts, without actually moving a muscle.

Doud and colleagues trained six survivors of stroke who had lost use of arms and hands to use 3-D glasses to produce the illusion that they were moving their own arms. In the simulation, the patients became about 81% accurate in exercises requiring them to use their virtual hands to reach a glass or a jar. Doud says that the technology can be adapted to train patients to pick up a toothbrush or open a jar with only minimal changes in programming, and it only takes 3 or 4 hours of training to help users reacquire individual lost skills. The program can adapted to specific tasks that patients find especially motivating.

Because this initial study was conducted with just six patients, larger and more diverse groups of volunteers will be needed to validate the use of the technology. But because of the relatively low cost of the technology, Doud believes that the virtual hands system can be developed for commercial distribution in the relatively near future.

Continue reading after recommendations

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  • Yuan H, Doud A, Gururajan A, He B. Cortical imaging of event-related (de)synchronization during online control of brain-computer interface using minimum-norm estimates in frequency domain.IEEE Trans Neural Syst Rehabil Eng. 2008 Oct.16(5):425-31. doi: 10.1109/TNSRE.2008.2003384. PMID: 18990646.
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