17 July 2012
Researchers at Georgia Tech have seen an improvement in sensation and movement in the hands of people with paralyzing spinal cord injury (SCI) after wearing a glove that helps them learn to play piano. The Mobile Music Touch (MMT) is a glove that helps them learn to play different songs by vibrating the wearer’s fingers to tell them which keys on a piano keyboard to play. The fact the improved sensation and motor skills occurred in individuals that had sustained their injury more than a year before the study is encouraging as most rehab patients see little improvement after such a period.
The MMT system, which evolved from the Piano Touch music learning system previously developed at Georgia Tech, consists of a device attached to the back of the glove that connects wirelessly to a computer, MP3 player or smartphone. A song is programmed into the wirelessly connected device and, as the correct keys are illuminated on the piano keyboard, the glove vibrates to indicate which finger should hit the key. This allows the wearer to play along to the song and gradually memorize the keys to hit.
These active learning sessions involved individuals who had suffered a spinal injury more than a year prior to the study and had limited feeling or movement in their hands. Over an eight-week period, the participants practiced playing the piano for 30 minutes, three times a week, with half using the MMT glove to practice and the other half not.
But teaching the study participants to play piano wasn’t the primary focus of the study. The participants also wore the glove at home for two hours a day, five days a week, so that they felt the vibrations as they went about their daily routines. Previous studies had shown that wearing the MMT system when not actually playing the piano helped people learn songs faster and retain them better, and the researchers hoped that the passive wearing of the device would also have rehabilitative effects.
Their hopes were apparently realized when they found that those study participants who used the MMT system performed significantly better when completing a variety of common grasping and sensation tests than those who had just learned the piano normally.
“After our preliminary work in 2011, we suspected that the glove would have positive results for people with SCI,” said Ph.D. graduate Tanya Markow, the project’s leader. “But we were surprised by how much improvement they made in our study. For example, after using the glove, some participants were able to feel the texture of their bed sheets and clothes for the first time since their injury.” She added, “some people were able to pick up objects more easily. Another said he could immediately feel the heat from a cup of coffee, rather than after a delay.”
Markow believes the improved motor abilities could be the result of renewed brain activity that can sometimes become dormant in those with SCI, with the vibration possibly triggering activity in the hand’s sensory cortex, leading to firing in the brain’s motor cortex. To investigate this possibility, Markow hopes to expand the study to include functional MRI (fMRI) results.