You may have heard of accessibility technology for stroke survivors, or technology that allows survivors to access the same places or perform the same tasks they did before their stroke. Now, there is also supportive technology for survivors of stroke, meant to help promote recovery after a stroke.
These exciting advancements are already being used to help stroke survivors regain range of motion, improve co-ordination, reduce pain and much more. Most do so by encouraging the brain to “retrain” itself or make new pathways in the brain for familiar actions that the stroke victim first learned in childhood.
Here’s how different technologies are helping stroke victims to use the “neuroplasticity” of their brain to better recover.
Video Games as Supportive Technology
There are many video games available to help stroke patients start their recovery process, including games available on smart phones and tablets. However, the most innovative video game so far developed from stroke rehabilitation practices uses a robotic arm, allowing the stroke survivor to use their whole arm to control the main character, a dolphin.
The game is called Bandit’s Shark Showdown. Researchers from John Hopkins Brain, Learning and Animation Movement Lab (BLAM) created the game to give stroke survivors a fun incentive to perform their motor exercises. Players control the dolphin, Bandit, to help him escape sharks and catch meals of his own, with increasingly challenging arm movements.
John Krakauer, the leading neurologist and neuroscientist at BLAM, co-created the game and explains that it takes some of the pressure off stroke victims, to get them to stop focusing on what their arm can no longer do.
“There’s no right and wrong when you’re playing as a dolphin. You’re learning the ABCs again – the building blocks of action,” Krakauer explained to the New Yorker, “You’re not thinking about your arm’s limitations. You’re learning to control a dolphin. In the process, you’re going to experiment with many movements you’d never try in conventional therapy.”
Cell phone games are also available online to help stroke victims without the robotic arm. According to the National Stroke Association, these games can help with aphasia recovery, communications, vision, memory and organization.
Robotics Technology for Stroke Survivors
While the control piece for Bandit’s Shark Showdown is a full-arm control, the same kind of concept goes into robotic arms, legs, and other kinds of robotic technology supports. These smart robots will give the stroke survivor’s body gentle support, while still allowing the survivor to start practicing movements. Sometimes the robotic supports act more like an exoskeleton, moving the stroke survivor’s limbs for them to help the rehabilitation process.
According to the Wall Street Journal, robotic supportive technologies are highly successful because they are adjustable. As the stroke system develops more co-ordination and strength, the robotic apparatus can give less support. This is a kind of “weaning” process, where the end goal is for the stroke survivor to be able to make the movements without the support of the exoskeleton.
One example is the SaeboGlove, a robotic device that can manipulate each finger individually for the stroke survivor. The device can be used at home, without medical support, easing the difficulty of home physical therapy for stroke survivors.
Functional Electrical Stimulation
Some stroke survivors struggle with both under-active and overactive muscles. When their brain asks their muscles to move, they may get no response, or they may have an overactive response at the wrong time. One supportive technology that can help correct this is functional electrical stimulation. This involves applying a small electric shock to the muscles when a stroke survivor is trying to make them move.
According to the Stroke Association, electrical stimulation can help any part of a stroke survivor’s body, including shoulders and legs. One of the foremost uses of electrical stimulation is to help recovery from foot drop, or the inability to raise the front part of the foot. Small electrodes are placed on the top of the foot to deliver a small shock when the stroke survivor tries to raise their foot. The result is a better connection between the brain and foot muscles that, for most patients, will result in better motor function.
However, the Stroke Association does warn that not every stroke survivor can use electrical stimulation. Those with cardiac pacemakers or defibrillators could be harmed by trying to use functional electrical stimulation. Even those without a pacemaker may find that electrical therapy is too uncomfortable to continue. It does involve repeated shocks, which should be mild, but which some patients may not tolerate well.
Additional Brain Rehabilitation Apps
The use of additional brain training apps puts a dedicated focus on consistently improving cognitive, language and speech skills. One such example is Constant Therapy, an easy-to-use mobile app that uses clinically proven stroke and TBI rehabilitation exercises to help patients engage their brains on a regular basis in the comfort of their own home.
According to the developers, the app tracks a patient’s progress to help them identify areas in which they are improving and others that may require some extra attention. All results are provided in real time and the exercises become more challenging (or less challenging) depending on progression.
The Importance of Starting Early
With all of these new supportive technologies, the experts argue that starting early offers patients the best results. But these technologies are also giving stroke survivors results that were previously not thought possible. One study found that vagus nerve stimulation, a type of electrical stimulation, can even double the recovery rate for stroke survivors. There’s good reason to hope those supportive technologies will give stroke survivors better and better outcomes in the future.