Virtual reality games improved the ability of stroke survivors to walk and also appear to have improved function in the damaged part of the brain, researchers report.

It was a small study, including just 10 people who had suffered strokes more than a year earlier. But the findings indicate that computerized game-playing could have a role in stroke rehabilitation programs, said lead study author Sung H. You, assistant professor of physical therapy at Hampton University, in Hampton, Va.

All 10 stroke survivors had finished conventional physical therapy programs before the study began, You said, and “had reached their natural potential recovery.”

The study used interactive games that are sold commercially. These games create a virtual reality scene and superimpose the patient’s life-size body into the scene.

“They can choose their game,” You said. “If a patient likes soccer, we use a soccer game. They stand in front of a big-screen television set, and a camera captures their motion. You can customize the program for the level of difficulty, depending on the performance of the patient, gradually increasing intensity in terms of speed and accuracy.”

All of the participants had stroke-caused weakness on one side of the body. Five of them received the computer-assisted training one hour a day, five days a week for a month, while the others did not.

Tests showed an average improvement of 23 percent in the ability to walk 15 meters for those who played the virtual reality game, versus a 5 percent improvement for those who didn’t play a game. And the ability to walk up four steps improved more than 17 percent in the virtual reality group, and not at all in the other group, the researchers said.

Imaging studies also showed an improvement in brain function after virtual reality participation. “After the intervention, the side of the brain that was damaged was activated, not 100 percent of normal but an improvement in function,” You noted.

The Hampton researchers are now looking for funding to continue with their study. “We hope to work on a larger scale, perhaps in patients’ homes,” You said.

The new study offers more proof that computerized training can help stroke patients recover function, said Grigore C. Burdea, professor of computer engineering and director of the Human-Machines Interface Laboratory at Rutgers University, who has done similar work.

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