A recent article in the Age this week wrote about a woman in the USA who managed to use brain waves to control a robot arm. Rigged up with connecting wires from her motor cortex to the robotic arm, she lifted a drink to her mouth, just by thinking about it. This was reported to be the first voluntary movement this lady had produced in the 15 years since her stroke.
What is fantastic news about this article, is not only the fact that technology is advancing at a rapid pace and continuing to break new barriers for people with neurological conditions, but that the fundamental neurological system was still sufficiently intact after 15 years, enough so to drive a robot arm.
The brain is an incredible thing. We hear much about this in stroke literature and human interest stories, especially with respect to neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the capacity for the brain to continually remodel itself depending on the specific demands applied to it. This occurs both at the structural level of brain architecture, as well as at the electrical level that conducts optimal and efficient electrical traffic flow. Plasticity is continuous and ongoing throughout life. This robotics study, “BrainGate” again shows us how incredibly adaptive the brain is, even decades after injury.
Other studies, recently presented at the World Congress for NeuroRehabilitation in Melbourne last week, support the statement that neuroplasticity is incredibly responsive to demands, be they cognitive, social, physical, environmental- or factors of all. Even some medications have been tested to enhance neuroplastic change in addition to physiotherapy.
What is most important from all the literature is that neuroplastic change occurs in both the presence of stimulation and the absence of stimulation. An environment deprived of stimulation can be detrimental to neuroplasticity and ultimately recovery following an injury to the brain from stroke, trauma or degenerative disease. There is a lot of research going into this area, especially in ways to enrich the rehabilitation environments in hospital. At present, people in rehabilitation units spend on average less than an hour of the day in therapy and up to 50% of the time ‘looking off into the distance’. This is reported not to have changed in the past 20 years, despite the fact that we have known this for 20 years.
So, what to do about this? As a specialist rehab practice we have been exploring ways in which we can enrich both our rehab environment and that of the client home so that people are engaged in both physical and cognitive task training for a large part of the day. Some of the most exciting new technology items we have been looking into are computer software programs like the Wii, Humac and Pablo which are respectively incredibly addictive and have elements of both physical and cognitive training. Other devices such as the Saebo and Bioness for upper limb therapy can also be useful in facilitating high numbers of repetitions at home and outside of individual therapy sessions. All of these items are of course not without their own barriers to use and productivity but it is indeed an exciting time for neuro-rehabiliation and neuroplasticity looking into the future!
For more information on any of the items of technology we have been looking into, please contact the centre directly on 9906 7777.
Categories: Feature Article