Background: New technologies to improve post-stroke rehabilitation outcomes are of great interest and have a positive impact on functional, motor, and cognitive recovery. Identifying the most effective rehabilitation intervention is a recognized priority for stroke research and provides an opportunity to achieve a more desirable effect. Objective: The objective is to verify the effect of new technologies on motor outcomes of the upper limbs, functional state, and cognitive functions in post-stroke rehabilitation. Methods: Forty two post-stroke patients (8.69 ± 4.27 weeks after stroke onset) were involved in the experimental study during inpatient rehabilitation. Patients were randomly divided into two groups: conventional programs were combined with the Armeo Spring robot-assisted trainer (Armeo group; n = 17) and the Kinect-based system (Kinect group; n = 25). The duration of sessions with the new technological devices was 45 min/day (10 sessions in total). Functional recovery was compared among groups using the Functional Independence Measure (FIM), and upper limbs’ motor function recovery was compared using the Fugl–Meyer Assessment Upper Extremity (FMA-UE), Modified Ashworth Scale (MAS), Hand grip strength (dynamometry), Hand Tapping test (HTT), Box and Block Test (BBT), and kinematic measures (active Range Of Motion (ROM)), while cognitive functions were assessed by the MMSE (Mini-Mental State Examination), ACE-R (Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination-Revised), and HAD (Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale) scores. Results: Functional independence did not show meaningful differences in scores between technologies (p > 0.05), though abilities of self-care were significantly higher after Kinect-based training (p < 0.05). The upper limbs’ kinematics demonstrated higher functional recovery after robot training: decreased muscle tone, improved shoulder and elbow ROMs, hand dexterity, and grip strength (p < 0.05). Besides, virtual reality games involve more arm rotation and performing wider movements. Both new technologies caused an increase in overall global cognitive changes, but visual constructive abilities (attention, memory, visuospatial abilities, and complex commands) were statistically higher after robotic therapy. Furthermore, decreased anxiety level was observed after virtual reality therapy (p < 0.05). Conclusions: Our study displays that even a short-term, two-week training program with new technologies had a positive effect and significantly recovered post-strokes functional level in self-care, upper limb motor ability (dexterity and movements, grip strength, kinematic data), visual constructive abilities (attention, memory, visuospatial abilities, and complex commands) and decreased anxiety level.
Insufficient motor control compromises the ability of Stroke Patients (SP) to perform activities of daily living and will likely have a negative impact on the quality of life. Improving Upper Limb (UL) function is an important part of post-stroke rehabilitation in order to reduce disability . Recovery in the context of motor ability may refer to the return of pre-stroke muscle activation patterns or to compensation involving the appearance of alternative muscle activation patterns that attempt to compensate for the motor function deficit . The past decades have seen rapid development of a wide variety of assistive technologies that can be used in UL rehabilitation. These include electromyographic biofeedback, virtual reality, electromechanical and robotic devices, electrical stimulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation, direct current stimulation, and orthoses . Currently, two effective technologies that provide external feedback to SP during training, improve the retention of learned skills, and may be able to enhance the motor recovery are discussed .
Virtual Reality (VR): The Microsoft TM Kinect-based system provides feedback on movement execution and/or goal attainment . Incorporating therapy exercises into virtual games can make therapy more enjoyable and more realistic, such that task-based exercises have increased applicability in the clinical environment [6,7], increasing motivation and therefore adherence, which are useful for navigating this virtual environment; this has been identified as the most feasible for future implementation .
Electromechanical and robotic devices can move passive UL along more secure movement trajectories and provide either assistance or resistance to movement of a single joint or control of inter-segmental coordination. Recent technological advances have the ability to control multiple joints accurately at the same time, enabling them to produce more realistic task-based exercises for SP . Compared to manual therapy, robots have the potential to provide intensive rehabilitation consistently for a longer duration . Recovery of sensorimotor function after CNS damage is based on the exploitation of neuroplasticity, with a focus on the rehabilitation of movements needed for self-independence. This requires physiological limb muscle activation, which can be achieved through functional UL movement exercises and activation of the appropriate peripheral receptors . The Armeo Spring robot-assisted trainer device may improve UL motor function recovery as predicted by reshaping of cortical and transcallosal plasticity, according to the baseline cortical excitability . Knowledge of the potential brain plasticity reservoir after brain damage constitutes a prerequisite for an optimal rehabilitation strategy [12,13]. There is evidence that robot training for the hand is superior; during post-stroke rehabilitation, hand training is likely to be the most useful [8,13].
Previous studies have shown that the use of systems based on VR environments, motion sensors, and robotics can improve motor function. Currently, no high-quality evidence can be found for any interventions that are currently used as part of routine practice, and evidence is insufficient to enable comparison of the relative effectiveness of interventions [14,15,16].
The objectives of the study are to clarify in which area of functional UL recovery these new technologies are more suitable and effective and how much these interventions affect functional state and cognitive functions.
We raise the hypothesis that a robot-assisted device and virtual reality both have a positive effect on functional independence recovery in stroke-affected patients; however, having a different influence on UL motor function and cognitive changes. We assume that the robot-assisted device is more efficient and more accurately allows selecting tasks for developing specific motor function (range of motion, strength or dexterity of the affected arm), while Kinect-based games provide more free movements that are less suitable for specific motor function development and may be more targeted for cognitive functions.