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Help for stroke victims by: Nicky Blackburn


Israeli researchers have developed a virtual shopping centre that helps stroke victims improve their cognitive functioning and recover strength in their upper bodies.

The "mall", which was developed by University of Haifa Occupational Therapy student, Debbie Rand, who is studying for her doctorate, allows stoke patients to wander virtually through a range of stores, picking out and paying for purchases, just as they would in a real store.

The patient stands in front of a large TV screen, and a small camera set in front displays the person's image within the virtual environment. No other accessories are necessary."The patient operates the environment by moving his body," says 37-year-old Rand. "They move their arms and hands to take things from the shelves and put them in the basket. As they 'shop' they can watch themselves and receive feed back about their movements."

Rand came up with the idea after seeing how stroke patients benefited from specially adapted football games developed on a virtual reality system developed by Canadian company Gesture Tech. "We wanted to maximise the ability of patients in every day living," she explains. "When patients are in rehabilitation, it is very hard to reproduce functional tasks such as shopping, and yet these are very important for them.

We have found that many stroke patients achieve independence in basic living activities such as eating, dressing and bathing, but in more complex tasks, such as shopping, or catching a bus, which require both physical activity and thinking and cognitive abilities such as planning and problem solving, they have major problems and often end up staying at home and not functioning in the community.

"In rehabilitation it is impossible to take a patient shopping every day, but with the virtual shopping centre, we can take the shops and the supermarket into the clinic or hospital. We discovered that their ability to carry out shopping tasks improved substantially," says Rand. "They managed to perform more tasks, and made far less mistakes. It helped both their physical and cognitive rehabilitation."

In addition, she says, the patients enjoyed the experience. "They did not focus on the weakness in their arms, but on the shopping tasks they had to carry out. As a result they were able to work longer and harder than in conventional therapy. Using their arms in a functional way to shop, they forgot they were working so hard."

Until now the only virtual reality programmes developed for stroke patients require patients to use a keyboard and mouse which is a more unnatural experience.

In the future, Rand hopes to further develop the virtual reality shopping centre to help patients suffering from other disabilities such as traumatic brain injury or spinal cord injury.

Rand developed the virtual shopping centre under the guidance of Prof. Tamar Weiss of the University of Haifa's Dept. of Occupational Therapy, and Prof. Noomi Katz of the Hebrew University's School of Occupational Therapy.

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