Research: Stroke Patients May Benefit from Watching Others Perform Tasks

Many people find that getting hands-on with a new task greatly helps them to learn to perform it. But a new study from the University of Southern California (USC) has found that merely watching someone else perform a difficult task can help patients who've had a stroke.

In a June 11 news announcement, USC researchers said they'd monitored the brains of 24 people - half of whom have had a stroke, and half of whom have not had a stroke but are of the same age as the stroke patients.

As researchers monitored them, both groups watched other people perform activities using their hands and arms, such as lifting pencils and flipping cards. These activities, researchers said, would have been difficult for the stroke patients to perform because they'd lost function in their hands and arms.

Researchers then checked to see how participants' brains responded to the activities they were watching.

The brains of the people who had not had strokes responded normally: Researchers reported "activity in cortical motor regions that are generally activated when we watch others perform actions."

But in the brains of stroke patients, researchers said, "Activity was strongest in these regions of the damaged hemisphere, and strongest when stroke patients viewed actions they would have had the most difficulty performing."

Why?

"Activating regions near the damaged portions of the brain is like exercising it, building strength that can help it to recover to a degree," the report said.

Kathleen Garrison, the lead author of the research report, explained, "Watching others perform physical tasks leads to activations in motor areas of the damaged hemisphere of the brain after stroke, which is exactly what we're trying to do in therapy. If we can help drive plasticity in these brain regions, we may be able to help individuals with stroke recover more of the ability to move their arm and hand."

Researchers theorized that the results of the study could support the expansion of action-observation as a therapeutic activity for stroke patients in the future.

"We could make videos of what patients will be doing in therapy, and then have them watch it as homework," said researcher Lisa Aziz-Zadeh from the USC Brain Creativity Institute and division of occupational science and occupational therapy. "In some cases, it could pave the way for them to do better."

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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