Stroke Rehabilitation Through VR


Abhinav Raj

Abhinav Raj, Writer


Imperial spinoff firm Cogitat, supported by the UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) have developed a way to restore brain plasticity through a VR-enabled brain-computer interface—controlled by the mind.

Across the UK, about 100,000 people suffer from strokes every year. According to the Stroke Association, a person suffers from a stroke in Britain once every five minutes—and currently, 1.3 million individuals cope with the debilitating after-effects. 

Imperial startup, Cogitat, backed by the UK Research and Innovation aims to help the survivors of stroke recuperate from its adverse effects through virtual reality (VR) games powered by a brain-computer interface. 

It is common for survivors of stroke to suffer from motor impairment—which often results in partial or total loss of limb function. However, this loss isn’t completely irreversible thanks to ‘brain plasticity’, which refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and change itself in response to stimulus—such as experience or learning. 

Cogitat is leveraging the phenomenon of brain plasticity to design virtual reality games that allow stroke patients to exercise their brains in VR to regain limb control. 

The game developed by the Imperial spinoff firm requires users to open and close a virtual hand in a simulated environment through their minds. While ostensibly simple, the game stimulates ‘mirror neurons’ as a user attempts to open and close a fist, stimulating the neural pathways required to perform the very action in real life through experiencing the simulation in VR.

Photo by Shutterstock

“If you can’t move your hand at all, repeated practice can be very frustrating, but the games we are developing will offer a more rewarding experience,” explained Cogitat CEO Allan Ponniah in a statement to the UKRI. 

“Initially, users just imagine their movements and they see their hands moving in VR. As time goes on, it helps calibrate their hands. Once they move their hands a little bit, this is represented in the VR experience as a more successful performance. This pushes them towards a situation where they can, for example, fully open and close a fist.”

Cogitat’s innovation provides a promising pathway to help patients of stroke regain motor control and live their lives independently—empowering them at a vulnerable stage in their lives. 

Advances in VR and brain-computer interfaces are transforming and redefining lives for many and will continue to do so in the days to come.