By artificially vibrating certain muscle parts, the brain areas and neuronal pathways responsible for movement can be trained. This has the potential to help stroke patients recover their mobility more quickly. These are the results of PhD research by Maarten Steyvers of the Department of Kinesiology, K.U.Leuven.
People who suffer a stroke — and with longer lifespans their numbers are increasing — are often partially immobilized. Because they can no longer move certain body parts, specific areas of the brain can begin to degrade. The brain not only directs movement; movement also sends stimuli to the brain and keeps it in good condition. If the stimuli cease, the areas of the brain responsible for movement literally start to shrink.
Dr Steyvers’s research was initially carried out with healthy test subjects. He applied vibrations to certain muscle masses in the region of the wrist, since stroke victims frequently encounter problems executing hand movements. These vibrations were registered by the sensory cortex, the part of the brain responsible for perception.
Steyvers also used a new technique for measuring stimulation in the motor neurons and the motor cortex (the part of the brain located next to the sensory cortex, it directs conscious movement). At a specific vibration frequency, stimuli originating in the vibrating muscle masses had an effect not only on the sensory, but also the motor regions and neurons. The effect continued even after the stimulation ceased.
The beneficial effects are clear: it is now possible to prevent shrinking of the motor cortex, even when the muscles are immobile. If the same technique yields positive results in stroke victims — the next phase of this research — then their rehabilitation can go much faster.