A new study found that there was strong cortical motor activity in the brain of stroke patients when observing others performing physical tasks, which may offer new insight into stroke rehabilitation. A team of researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) monitored the brains of 24 individuals, of which 12 suffered strokes and 12 who had not, using fMRI while they observed others performing actions done using the arm and hand.
The research team found that the typical brain responded to the visual stimulus with activity in cortical motor regions in the stroke-affected brain, and activity was strongest when stroke patients viewed the actions they would have the most difficulty performing. The Stroke study notes that activating regions near the damaged part of the brain is similar to exercising it and allows it to build strength that can aid in recovery.
Kathleen Garrison, lead author of the research paper, explains that the activations in motor areas of the damaged hemisphere of the brain following a stroke is what aims to be accomplished in therapy. Garrison adds that, “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.”
The Stroke report on the study notes that using action-observation in stroke rehabilitation has shown promise in previous studies, and this study is among the first to explain why it may be effectual. The process of getting the circuits engaged through action-observation before trying to move is a type of virtual exercise program for the brain that prepares the patient for the real exercise that will include the brain and the body.
The study may also offer support for expanding action-observation as a therapeutic technique, especially for individuals who have been screened using fMRI and have shown a significant response to it.