October 28, 2011

Walking Your Way Back to Brain Health

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Joseph V. Madia, MD By:

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Stroke or brain injury rehabilitation

(dailyRx News) Relearning how to walk after a stroke or brain injury can be a difficult task. An innovative method for alternating walking patterns may aid patients in regaining their usual walking ability.

Forcing patients to switch back and forth between a normal walking pattern and an unusual one might be the most effective physical therapy because it offers new challenges.

"Reearch physical therapy options after a stroke or brain injury."

Amy Bastian, director of Motion Analysis Laboratory at Kennedy Krieger Institute, said that the standard approach for helping stroke patients relearn how to walk and improve other motor skills is to describe to them how to move better, and then have them practice it repeatedly. She said her new research suggests that the most effective approach instead may be repeatedly challenging patients with new training situations.

During the study, researchers trained 52 healthy adults to walk on a split-belt treadmill. One group spent 15 minutes on the treadmill while being constantly exposed to belts moving at different speeds.

The second group, called the switch group, walked on belts that alternated between different speeds and identical speeds.

After 24 hours both groups were asked to walk on the belts while they were moving at different speeds. The participants in the switch group relearned how to resume the unusual walking pattern faster than the participants who were constantly exposed to different speeds.

Bastian said that those in the switch group "learned to learn" by experiencing more of the awkward and limping leg pattern that occurs after a switch in speeds.

Researchers noted that practicing a completely different walking pattern did not interfere with the ability of participants to relearn the first one. A third group that walked on the split-belt treadmill, forced to move their right leg faster for 15 minutes followed by their left leg, also relearned the initial walking pattern slightly faster than those who experienced only the single pattern.

Previous studies in the same lab had suggested that the split-level treadmill could help correct walking deficits in children or adults with weakness on one side from conditions such as a stroke or brain injury.

The research was published in the Oct.19 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

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Reviewed by: 
Joseph V. Madia, MD
Review Date: 
October 24, 2011

Last Updated:
October 28, 2011