For some stroke survivors, recovering the ability to move their hands and arms is a difficult task. But a research team has created a brain-computer interface, which provides "virtual reality hands" controlled by the stroke survivors' thoughts, potentially helping them regain mobility.

The team will report their findings from a small study at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2013.

The researchers, led by Alexander Doud - a Masters student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis at the time of the study, but now CTO at a biomedical engineering and human factors design firm - say their technology can reveal whether stroke patients are activating certain brain regions linked to faster recovery.

Doud explains the exercises with the virtual hands:

"During rehabilitation, usually a therapist will move the patient's hand or arm in the desired direction while asking that patient to imagine they are making the movement. In this practice space, the patients can control photorealistic hands by thinking about using their own hands without actually moving at all."

A 'practical approach' to recovering mobility

Doud and his team tested their interface on six stroke survivors who experienced damaged arm and hand movement. These subjects wore 3D glasses to give the illusion that their own arms were moving in front of them.

Overall, the subjects showed 81% accuracy with the virtual hands when reaching for a glass of water or tea. The researchers say these skills improved in three 2-hour sessions.

The same research group previously created a similar brain-computer interface, in which a flying robot is controlled by the mind. A video of that apparatus below explains how it works:

Regarding the virtual hand interface, Doud says it "is created in a way that could allow it to be used to practice a wide variety of desired activities, such as picking up a toothbrush or opening a jar, with very little additional work to set up the system."

He adds that this could be tailored to each patient, which "leads to patient motivation."

Although the team's findings are promising, Doud says that the small sample size of their study requires replication in a larger population of stroke patients. However, the study does show this new approach is practical.

Doud adds:

"This is an engaging system that encourages patients to practice using the areas of their brain that may have been damaged or weakened by their stroke, and the technology could be used along with commonly provided rehabilitation therapy for stroke."

Medical News Today recently reported on a virtual hand developed in the UK that could be used to help treat anxiety and body image disorders.