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‘Wearable computing’ can change people’s lives

02 August 2012

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in the USA have created a wireless enabled, musical glove that may improve sensation and motor skills for people with paralysing spinal cord injury (SCI). 

The gadget has been successfully used by individuals with limited feeling or movement in their hands due to tetraplegia resulting from injuries sustained more than a year before the study - a time frame when most rehab patients see very little improvement for the remainder of their lives.

The Mobile Music Touch (MMT) device comprises a glove, rather like a workout glove, with a small box on the back; it is used in conjunction with a piano keyboard and vibrates a person’s fingers to indicate which keys to play. While learning to play the instrument, several people with SCI reported experiencing improved sensation in their fingers.

Researchers at Georgia Tech and Atlanta’s Shepherd Center recently completed a study focusing on people with weakness and sensory loss due to SCI. Project leader and post-doctoral graduate, Tanya Markow takes up the story:

“After our preliminary work in 2011, we suspected that the glove would have positive results for people with SCI, 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.”

Markow worked with SCI sufferers with limited feeling or movement in their hands, each having suffered a spinal injury more than a year prior to the study. The eight-week project required study participants to practice playing the piano for 30 minutes, three times a week, with half of the number of participants using the MMT glove to practice, and the other half not.

The MMT system works with a computer, MP3 player or smart phone. A song is programmed into a device, which is wirelessly linked to the glove. As the musical notes are illuminated on the on the appropriate piano keys, the gadget sends vibrations to ‘tap’ the corresponding fingers. The participants play along, gradually memorising the keys and learning additional songs. 

These active learning sessions with MMT were, however, not the primary focus of the study. Participants also wore the glove at home for two hours a day, five days a week, feeling only the vibration (and not playing the piano). Previous studies had shown that wearing the MMT system passively in this manner helped participants learn songs faster and retain them better. The researchers hoped that the passive wearing of the device would also have rehabilitative effects. 

At the end of the study, participants performed a variety of common grasping and sensation tests to measure their improvement.  Those who used the MMT system performed significantly better than those who just learned the piano normally. “Some people were able to pick up objects more easily,” adds Markow. “Another said he could immediately feel the heat from a cup of coffee, rather than after a delay.”

Markow believes the increased motor abilities could be caused by renewed brain activity that sometimes becomes dormant in persons with SCI. The vibration might be triggering activity in the hand’s sensory cortex, which leads to firing in the brain’s motor cortex. Markow is now hoping to expand the study to include functional MRI testing. 

The glove has evolved in recent years under the leadership of Georgia Tech’s Thad Starner (an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing) and Ellen Yi-Luen Do (a professor in the Schools of Interactive Computing and Industrial Design), as well as Deborah Backus, director of multiple sclerosis research at the Shepherd Center.

The initial concept, called Piano Touch, developed with the team by then masters student Kevin Huang, demonstrated that people could easily learn to play the piano by wearing the glove and feeling its vibrations. It didn’t take long for Starner to see the larger health benefits.

“Equipment used for hand rehabilitation may seem monotonous and boring to some, and doesn’t provide any feedback or incentive,” said Starner. “Mobile Music Touch overcomes each of those challenges and provides surprising benefits for people with weakness and sensory loss due to SCI. It’s a great example of how ‘wearable computing’ can change people’s lives.”

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