What if an illness or an injury to your spine robbed you of the use of your hands? How badly would your quality of life suffer if you could not button your shirt, pick up a fork, or type in a phone number?
What if music held the answer to your recovery?
Researchers at Georgia Tech have been exploring just that possibility. Their new Mobile Music Touch (MMT) system combines a special glove with a series of tiny vibratory motors — along with a laptop and a musical keyboard — to teach people with spinal injuries how to play music. In the process, the device is helping these people to regain some of the mobility they lost.
The researchers started experimenting with the glove as a method of teaching music back in 2008, but in 2011 they began to wonder if it would also be of help to people suffering with tetraplegia (also known as quadriplegia) as a result of paralyzing spinal cord injuries (SCI). They gathered a group of subjects who had been injured more than a year prior to the study — a point when recovery is normally limited — and had them use the glove to learn to play, and then practice, the piano three times a week for 30 minutes at a time, over the course of eight weeks.
They also wore the gloves at home for two hours a day, five days a week, where they would constantly feel the vibrations from the motors. The researchers hope this passive wearing of the device could have further rehabilitative effects.
"We were surprised by how much improvement they made in our study," project leader Tanya Markow, a Georgia Tech Ph.D. graduate, said in a prepared statement. "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." Others said they were able to pick up small objects, something they were not able to do before the study. Another patient said he felt heat immediately after picking up a cup of coffee, a sensation that had previously been delayed.
As you can see in the following video from Georgia Tech, the patients started off seeing songs visualized on a keyboard as the keys lit up while a song was being played through a laptop. The glove then produced tiny vibrations telling the wearers which fingers would be necessary to play those notes. Only then did they start playing the piano with the glove as a guide.
Markow said she believes the increased motor abilities could be the result of renewed brain activity that might have been dormant in the subjects with SCI. They hope to expand the study to use functional MRI scans to see if the vibration from the glove is triggering the hand's sensory cortex and in turn the brain's motor cortex.