[ARTICLE] Domiciliary VR-Based Therapy for Functional Recovery and Cortical Reorganization: Randomized Controlled Trial in Participants at the Chronic Stage Post Stroke – Full Text


Background: Most stroke survivors continue to experience motor impairments even after hospital discharge. Virtual reality-based techniques have shown potential for rehabilitative training of these motor impairments. Here we assess the impact of at-home VR-based motor training on functional motor recovery, corticospinal excitability and cortical reorganization.

Objective: The aim of this study was to identify the effects of home-based VR-based motor rehabilitation on (1) cortical reorganization, (2) corticospinal tract, and (3) functional recovery after stroke in comparison to home-based occupational therapy.

Methods: We conducted a parallel-group, controlled trial to compare the effectiveness of domiciliary VR-based therapy with occupational therapy in inducing motor recovery of the upper extremities. A total of 35 participants with chronic stroke underwent 3 weeks of home-based treatment. A group of subjects was trained using a VR-based system for motor rehabilitation, while the control group followed a conventional therapy. Motor function was evaluated at baseline, after the intervention, and at 12-weeks follow-up. In a subgroup of subjects, we used Navigated Brain Stimulation (NBS) procedures to measure the effect of the interventions on corticospinal excitability and cortical reorganization.

Results: Results from the system’s recordings and clinical evaluation showed significantly greater functional recovery for the experimental group when compared with the control group (1.53, SD 2.4 in Chedoke Arm and Hand Activity Inventory). However, functional improvements did not reach clinical significance. After the therapy, physiological measures obtained from a subgroup of subjects revealed an increased corticospinal excitability for distal muscles driven by the pathological hemisphere, that is, abductor pollicis brevis. We also observed a displacement of the centroid of the cortical map for each tested muscle in the damaged hemisphere, which strongly correlated with improvements in clinical scales.

Conclusions: These findings suggest that, in chronic stages, remote delivery of customized VR-based motor training promotes functional gains that are accompanied by neuroplastic changes.


After initial hospitalization, many stroke patients return home relatively soon despite still suffering from impairments that require continuous rehabilitation [1]. Therefore, ¼ to ¾ of patients display persistent functional limitations for a period of 3 to 6 months after stroke [2]. Although clinicians may prescribe a home exercise regimen, reports indicate that only one-third of patients actually accomplish it [3]. Consequently, substantial gains in health-related quality of life during inpatient stroke rehabilitation may be followed by equally substantial declines in the 6 months after discharge [4]. Multiple studies have shown, however, that supported discharge combined with at home rehabilitation services does not compromise clinical inpatient outcomes [57] and may enhance recovery in subacute stroke patients [8]. Hence, it is essential that new approaches are deployed that help to manage chronic conditions associated with stroke, including domiciliary interventions [9] and the augmentation of current rehabilitation approaches in order to enhance their efficiency. There should be increased provision of home-based rehabilitation services for community-based adults following stroke, taking cost-effectiveness, and a quick family and social reintegration into account [10].

One of the latest approaches in rehabilitation science is based on the use of robotics and virtual reality (VR), which allow remote delivery of customized treatment by combining dedicated interface devices with automatized training scenarios [1012]. Several studies have tested the acceptability of VR-based setups as an intervention and evaluation tool for rehabilitation [1315]. One example of this technology is the, so called, Rehabilitation Gaming System (RGS) [16], which has been shown to be effective in the rehabilitation of the upper extremities in the acute and the chronic phases of stroke [13]. However, so far little work exists on the quantitative assessment of the clinical impact of VR based approaches and their effects on neural reorganization that can directly inform the design of these systems and their application in the domiciliary context. The main objective of this paper is to further explore the potential and limitations of VR technologies in domiciliary settings. Specifically, we examine the efficacy of a VR-based therapy when used at home for (1) assessing functional improvement, (2) facilitating functional recovery of the upper-limbs, and (3) inducing cortical reorganization. This is the first study testing the effects of VR-based therapy on cortical reorganization and corticospinal integrity using NBS.



We conducted a parallel-group, controlled trial in order to compare the effectiveness of domiciliary VR-based therapy versus domiciliary occupational therapy (OT) in inducing functional recovery and cortical reorganization in chronic stroke patients.


Participants were first approached by an occupational therapist from the rehabilitation units of Hospital Esperanza and Hospital Vall d’Hebron from Barcelona to determine their interest in participating in a research project. Recruited participants met the following inclusion criteria: (1) mild-to-moderate upper-limbs hemiparesis (Proximal MRC>2) secondary to a first-ever stroke (>12 months post-stroke), (2) age between 45 and 85 years old, (3) absence of any major cognitive impairment (Mini-Mental State Evaluation, MMSE>22), and (4) previous experience with RGS in the clinic. The ethics committee of clinical research of the Parc de Salut Mar and Vall d’Hebron Research Institute approved the experimental guidelines. Thirty-nine participants at the chronic stage post-stroke were recruited for the study by two occupational therapists, between October 2011 and January 2012, and were assigned to a RGS (n=20) or a control group (n=19) using stratified permuted block randomization methods for balancing the participants’ demographics and clinical scores at baseline (Table 1). One participant in the RGS group refused to participate. Prior to the experiment, participants signed informed consent forms. This trial was not registered at or before the onset of participants’ enrollment because it is a pilot study that evaluates the feasibility of a prototype device. However, this study was registered retrospectively in ClinicalTrials.gov and has the identifier NCT02699398.


Description of the Rehabilitation Gaming System

The RGS integrates a paradigm of goal-directed action execution and motor imagery [17], allowing the user to control a virtual body (avatar) through an image capture device (Figure 1). For this study, we developed training and evaluation scenarios within the RGS framework. In the Spheroids training scenario (Figure 1), the user has to perform bilateral reaching movements to intercept and grasp a maximum number of spheres moving towards him [16]. RGS captures only joint flexion and extension and filters out the participant’s trunk movements, therefore preventing the execution of compensatory body movements [18]. This task was defined by three difficulty parameters, each of them associated with a specific performance descriptor: (1) different trajectories of the spheres require different ranges of joint motion for elbow and shoulder, (2) the size of the spheres require different hand and grasp precision and perceptual abilities, and (3) the velocity of the spheres require different movement speeds and timing. All these parameters, also including the range of finger flexion and extension required to grasp and release spheroids, were dynamically modulated by the RGS Adaptive Difficulty Controller [19] to maintain the performance ratio (ie, successful trials over the total trials) above 0.6 and below 0.8, optimizing effort and reinforcement during training [20]. […]

Figure 1. Experimental setup and protocol: (A) Movements of the user’s upper limbs are captured and mapped onto an avatar displayed on a screen in first person perspective so that the user sees the movements of the virtual upper extremities. A pair of data gloves equipped with bend sensors captures finger flexion. (B) The Spheroids is divided into three subtasks: hit, grasp, and place. A white separator line divides the workspace in a paretic and non-paretic zone only allowing for ipsilateral movements.(C) The experimental protocol. Evaluation periods (Eval.) indicate clinical evaluations using standard clinical scales and Navigated Brain Stimulation procedures (NBS). These evaluations took place before the first session (W0), after the last session of the treatment (day 15, W3), and at follow-up (week 12, W12).

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