Stroke victims may benefit from controlling "virtual hands" with their minds.

"Using a brain-computer interface, we've created an environment where people who may be too physically impaired to move can practice mental imagery to help regain use of their arms and hands," Alexander Doud, M.S., lead author of the study, said in an American Heart Association news release.

Researchers can use "brain-computer interface technology" to monitor what brain regions are being utilized when the patients' control the virtual hands. The benefit of this would be to make sure the patients are exercising parts of their brain that will move them towards recovery.

"During rehabilitation, usually a therapist will move the patient's hand or arm in the desired direction while asking patient to imagine they are making the movement," Doud, a former Masters student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said. "In this practice space, the patients can control photorealistic hands by thinking about using their own hands without actually moving at all."

The technology was tested on six people who had suffered a stroke that affected the motor skills in their hands and arms. In the experiment, the participants were asked to wear 3D glasses so the virtual arms appeared to be their own.

The team noticed the patients were able to receive and accuracy rating of up to 86 percent when reaching for a glass of water with the virtual hands. Patients were able to significantly improve their skills after only about three two-hour sessions.

Since the study included so few participants, a larger trial will be required in order to move forward with the technique. Researchers are optimistic the system could greatly improve the quality of life for many stroke victims.  

"This is an engaging system that encourages patients to practice using the areas of their brain that may have been damaged or weakened by their stroke, and the technology could be used along with commonly provided rehabilitation therapy for stroke," Doud said.