Georgia Tech researchers have successfully created a wireless, musical glove that shows promise for improving fine motor skills and increasing sensation for people with paralyzing spinal cord injury, or SCI. Typically, people more than one year post-accident see very little improvement throughout the remainder of their lives, but with the new invention, patients past the one year mark reported improvement in movement.
Researchers from Georgia Tech and the Shepherd Institute conducted studies on patients with SCI who had limited movement or feeling in their hands, utilizing a new device they hoped would improve fine motor skills. The device, called Mobile Music Touch or MMT, looks like a glove with a small box located on the back. The MMT vibrates a person’s fingers to alert them to press the keys on a piano.
The study, which lasted eight weeks, involved patients playing the piano for 30 minutes, twice a week. Half of the patients used the MMT glove, while the other half did not. While learning to play the piano with the help of the MMT, several Shepherd Institute patients with paralyzing spinal cord injuries over one year old reported improved sensation in their fingers.
“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.”
The MMT system can work with a computer, MP3 player or smart phone. A song is pre-programmed into the device, and the device is linked wirelessly to the glove. One by one, the musical notes appear illuminated on the corresponding keys on the piano keyboard, and the device sends signals to the glove to vibrate the proper fingers. The user taps his or her finger, gradually memorizing the keys to the song.
Past studies showed that wearing the MMT system passively at home, where the vibrations would “train” the fingers’ response without the keyboard (called Passive Haptic Learning), helped patients learn songs faster and increased retention. Researchers hoped that these passive lessons, which lasted two hours per day five days per week, would also have rehabilitative effects.
As the study was coming to a close, researchers had participants perform a variety of sensation tests and grasping tasks to measure any improvement. The patients who had used the MMT system did significantly better than those who learned the piano without the help of the glove.
“Some people were able to pick up objects more easily,” said Markow. “Another said he could immediately feel the heat from a cup of coffee, rather than after a delay.”
“Equipment used for hand rehabilitation may seem monotonous and boring to some, and doesn’t provide any feedback or incentive,” said Starner, who oversees the Contextual Computing Group. “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.”