Northwestern researchers use video game to help stroke victims

For many stroke patients, regaining mobility can be a long tedious process. But Northwestern University scientists are helping them take back control.

They've invented an 80's style video game, that's portable, inexpensive and producing some exciting results. It's definitely not Fortnite or Mario Brothers, but the simplistic video game is helping stroke survivors regain arm movement.

Neurologist Dr. Marc Slutzky with Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and his colleagues were looking for a fun, inexpensive way to motivate stroke patients and help them take back control of their arms.

“Instead of being able to reach out for example and grab something right in front of them with their elbows straight, their muscles coactive, meaning they activate together abnormally,” said Dr. Slutzky. 

So, they invented a video game. In a study with 32 patients, they found it increased arm mobility and reduced stiffness. And most participants retrained their arm function one month after finishing the training.

"We record the actual electrical potentials that the muscles make when they contract, so when the muscles contract, there is an electrical signal they give off showing they are activating. That’s what we are recording and using to control the game,” said Dr. Slutzky. 

Nykima Robinson was part of the study. A video taken at the beginning of her stroke therapy shows how she couldn't reach out and extend her elbow. The video shows her accomplishing that goal at the end of the six-week study.

"We have learned chronic stroke survivors can learn to decouple these abnormally coupled muscles by playing this game,” said Dr. Slutzky. “They can overcome these abnormal patterns of movement in that seems to help them regain some function."

Dr. Slutzky says the improvements may not seem like a lot to the average person but they were clinically significant. That's because, after a stroke, even small improvements can mean a lot and encourage patients to keep trying to get better. 

"I have hope, I have faith,” said Robinson. “I just live life and I know I don't know what normal is, but I know what living life is."

Northwestern Medicine is looking for more patients to take part in the next phase of the study that is already underway. It's an at-home version of the game. 

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