Globally, there are 15 million strokes annually. Most people survive a first stroke but can be left with motor disability – a third have a significant cognitive impairment affecting their functional ability and require substantial socio-economic and financial support, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Strokes cost the UK £9 billion a year, with 50% of that in direct formal care, including lengthy hospital stays and nursing, clinician and therapy provision.

The University of Chester’s Medical Graphics team, based at Thornton Science Park, with the Stroke Department at the Countess of Chester Hospital, has come up with the idea of using a VR headset to help people recovering after a stroke – to give them the ability to practice and relearn the activities of daily living (such as putting bread into a toaster). Together with the Countess of Chester Hospital’s Stroke Unit and Chester company CadScan, the team has recently been awarded a £453,000 funding grant from Innovate UK, through its Digital Health Technology Catalyst.

Professor Nigel John from the University of Chester said: “Our aim is to reduce the duration and cost of long-term care by enabling intensive rehabilitation both in hospital and in the home, using affordable technology. The VR stroke programmes will adapt to each user’s needs and can be operated with minimal supervision, meaning they do not need to rely on family and carers. Patients will be able to measure how well their cognitive abilities are improving, building confidence in their ability to perform everyday tasks and reducing the psychological trauma often associated with the condition.”

Professor Kausik Chatterjee, Consultant Physician at the Countess of Chester Hospital, added: “The purpose of rehabilitation is to stimulate brain recovery through stimulus of new areas that compensate for the area of damage. Traditionally, this involves repetitive tasks to relearn function – this can be hard work with little evidence of quick improvement. It can be tedious for many patients and expensive to provide, as a result some of them may not receive the amount of specialist therapy time they actually need. This is a problem not only for the NHS, but also for most of the healthcare system all across the globe. This project is exciting in its ambition – both in terms of the benefit to the patient, and potential financial savings too.”

Alastair Buchanan from CadScan said: “Our innovation will create a cognitive rehabilitation programme that can be delivered by non-specialists, using low-cost, off-the-shelf hardware, to help patients relearn everyday tasks. We will develop a VR platform to provide personalised stroke rehabilitation programmes for patients, that can be delivered with minimal supervision by a semi-trained health professional. They can set their own workloads with goals and recognise their achievements and progress.”

Professor Nigel John added: “The overall goal of the project is to improve the quality of life of stroke survivors by returning them to active participation in society faster. We can’t wait to get started and turn our research into a (virtual) reality!”

Source: University of Chester