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Stroke Smart Magazine

March/April 2008

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Imagine Your Way to Better Movement

By Stephen J. Page, Ph.D.

Did you know that many athletes mentally rehearse their performances? This technique, called “mental practice,” involves rehearsal of movements in the mind without actually doing them. Research has shown that the same muscles fired during physical practice are fired during mental practice of a movement. Thanks to improved brain imaging methods, we also now know that the same parts of the brain fired during mental practice of a task are fired during physical performance of the same task. In fact, studies have shown that people who both mentally and physically practice have much higher rates of skill learning, and better movements, than those who only physically practice. And now, my research team is exploring how the “mind-body” connection of mental practice can help stroke survivors.

My team develops and tests new rehabilitative therapies for stroke patients. While some techniques are promising, many are not practical for most people. That’s partly why we like the idea of mental practice. It is safe and easy to administer, requires minimal setup, and involves no costly equipment. For nearly a decade, we have shown that patients who both physically and mentally practice therapy activities improve more than those who do no mental practice. This occurs because of two things. First, the mental therapy provides both your muscles and brain extra practice. And, the combination of both physical and mental practice allows you more opportunities to figure out ways to restore movement than with physical practice alone.

To test the effects of mental practice use, our studies provide patients with the same type of arm therapy that is provided in most therapy clinics. The therapy is administered to each patient by the same therapists, and in the same environment. One half of the patients only attend these therapy sessions. The other half of the patients also attend the therapy sessions, then mentally practice the arm movements at home. The mental practice is administered via an audio and/or videotape, and usually begins with relaxation. This is followed by 15-to-20-minute scenarios in which patients imagine themselves performing the tasks they physically performed that day in therapy. Lastly, we provide another five minutes of relaxation.

We are currently conducting several studies on this promising technique, and have had much success with it, as have other groups around the world. In fact, we have shown that patients who mentally and physically practice tend to have better therapy outcomes than patients who simply go to therapy then go home.

To learn more about my team, mental practice and other ongoing research, go to http://www.rehablab.org/.



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