Researchers from Georgia Tech created a wireless, “musical glove” that can improve sensation and motor skills for people with paralyzing spinal cord injury (or SCI). Although not the subject of the current research, similar technology might one day be used to help healthy people learn how to play musical instruments and improve other skill requiring delicate motor actions much more quickly.
A device called Mobile Music Touch (MMT) was developed and tested by researchers from Georgia Tech on individuals with limited feeling or movement in their hands due to tetraplegia (partial or total loss of use of all their limbs). These individuals had sustained their injury a year or more before the study was conducted, a time frame when most patients who undergo a rehabilitation process see very little improvement (if any) for the remainder of their lives. However, using the MMT device things proved to be different.
The MMT includes a glove, which looks similar to a normal workout glove with a small box on the top of it. The patient uses it together with a digital piano which indicate to the patient which keys to play by vibrating the right part of the glove/finger. While learning how to play the digital piano, several patients experienced improved sensation in their fingers.
The project’s leader Ph.D. graduate Tanya Markow, remarked: “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.”
The 8 week project required the patients who participants in the study to practice playing the piano for 30 minutes, three times a week. Half used the MMT glove to practice; half didn’t. The MMT system works with a computer, MP3 player or even smart phone. A song, such as Ode to Joy, was programmed into a device, which is was wirelessly linked to the glove.
Musical notes illuminated the keys on the digital piano and simultaneously the MMT sent vibrations to “alert” the corresponding fingers. The patients played along, gradually learning the keys of one song and followed by another.
The music learning was actually just an added bonus for the participants of the MMT test. The participants actually also wore the glove at home for two hours a day, five days a week, and feeling only the vibration (and not playing the piano). This has been done after previous studies have showed that wearing the MMT system passively in this way helped participants learn songs faster and retain them better. The researchers hoped that the passive wearing of the device would also have rehabilitative effects. Video – Tanya Markow whowing the MMT in action
After the study ended, participants performed several common grasping and sensation tests to measure their potential improvement. The patients who used the MMT system performed significantly better than those who just learned the piano normally. Dr. Markow remarked that: “Some people were able to pick up objects more easily, and another [patient] said he could immediately feel the heat from a cup of coffee, rather than after a delay.”
Markow theory about what is causing this miraculous change in the SCI patients has to do with 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.
The initial concept known as Piano Touch, was developed in 2008 with the team by then master’s student Kevin Huang, who was able to demonstrate that people could easily learn to play the piano by wearing the glove and feeling its vibrations. The same technology seem to be able to help both healthy people gain new skills and SCI patients regain lost ones.
More information can be found on the Georgia Tech website.
Iddo has a B.A. in Philosophy and Cognitive Science and an M.A. in Philosophy of Science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is currently writing his Ph.D. thesis on the relationship between the scientific community and industry. Iddo was awarded the 2006 Bar Hillel philosophy of science prize for his work on the relationship between science and technology. He is a member of the board of the lifeboat foundation and was the editor of several high-profile science and technology websites since 1999.
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