While we can counter the deterioration of sight and hearing with glasses and hearing aids, few tools exist for combating a degenerating sense of touch. A common ailment among stroke patients and the aging, treating diminishing tactile perception has proven a complicated task. Looking to provide a wearable solution unimposing enough for everyday use, a research team from Germany's Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) is developing a stimulation glove designed to be worn passively to alleviate such impairments.

The team's research examines the brain's synaptic plasticity (how efficiently information is communicated between neurons) and how it can be manipulated through electrical nerve stimulation at varying frequencies. The researcher's have found that a high-frequency stimulation for example, results in an improved communication between stimulated cells, while a low-frequency stimulation results in decreased efficiency, ultimately impacting our learning ability.

Working on the basis that such processes constitute a foundation of learning, the researchers suggest that through stimulating certain nerve cells, they can improve the efficiency of the communication between neurons and improve our sense of touch, without the need for an active contribution from the recipient.

In testing this hypothesis, the team applied passive electrical stimulation to two groups of participants: one group aged 65 to 89 years old and another aged 47 to 59 years. Before the stimulation treatment, the tactile discrimination (quality of the sense of touch) of the 65 to 89 year olds was far poorer than the younger group. As a result of the treatment, this difference was disappeared according to the researchers, suggesting that tactile deterioration as a result of aging can be treated through electrical stimulation.

When testing the approach with stroke patients, the team applied 45 to 60 minutes of stimulation, five days a week, in some cases for periods of more than two years. In almost all of the cases, the team observed positive results, with patients reporting an improved ability to distinguish between different surfaces and in manipulating objects such as removing a cap from a pen.

Other positive results from the treatment include an improved ability to differentiate between Braille patterns and a better overall dexterity of the hands and fingers.

The team used magnetic resonance imaging and high-density EEG measurements to gauge the impact of the treatment on the brain itself. An examination of the brains of patients from either study revealed the region which processes tactile information around the fingers to be enlarged.

These studies resulted in the release of a special patented glove that administers the stimulation treatment passively in September 2013. The glove uses electrical contacts located in the fingertips which deliver short electrical pulses, stimulating the nerves which communicate with the brain, but the researchers point out that further studies will be necessary to fully understand the potential of the treatment.

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