Earlier this year, we saw an amazing demonstration of an EEG skullcap interface that allowed a quadcopter to be controlled with only thoughts. Now the same technology is pioneering a medical therapy in which stroke patients can use their thoughts to guide a simulation, and thus rebuild damaged neurons. As the “virtual reality hands” provide customization and direct feedback of one’s progress, this could be an improvement over traditional therapy methods.

After a stroke occurs, it’s possible to rebuild the damaged neural connections and overcome paralysis, generally through a technique where a therapist moves the patient’s limbs while the patient imagines moving their limbs independently. But just as the patient is not directly moving their own limbs when working with a therapist, they need not even move real limbs, as the research team at the University of Minnesota found.

In the virtual reality hands technique, a patient wears the EEG skullcap, through which brain waves are converted into commands for controlling a simulation of arms and hands. The patient also wears 3D glasses to increase the illusion of the simulation being a part of them, similar to how the quadcopter pilots viewed camera footage directly from the bridge of the quadcopter, rather than viewing it in third person.

The technique provides patients with real-time visual feedback and, as an additional benefit, simulations can be customized to the patient’s goals and challenges, increasing the patient’s motivation. In traditional therapy, the experience is passive, and the movement occurs regardless of whether the patient is stimulating the correct neurons.

The test group of six was able to achieve as high as an 81 percent success rate in manipulating the simulated hands after three two-hour sessions and reported it being "engaging and gratifying."

While the study needs to be repeated on a larger and more diverse population, it was promising enough to be presented this week at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2013.

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