Wouldn’t it be marvellous if brain-damaged stroke patients could use mental practice to rehabilitate their weakened limbs? This isn’t as far fetched as it sounds. Merely imagining performing a movement, or watching someone else execute a movement, provokes activity in the same brain areas that are involved when carrying out that movement with your own body. This suggests imagery exercises could help forge new connections in damaged neural networks involved in actual bodily movement. Indeed, several small-scale studies have reported that mental imagery helps stroke patients recover their limb use, above and beyond the benefits from standard physical therapy.
What’s been lacking is a larger study with recently afflicted patients, an adequate control condition, and with the imagery intervention kept separate from standard physical therapy. Now psychologist Magdalena Ietswaart and her colleagues have published the results from just such a study. Sadly the outcome is disappointing.