Researchers from Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, conducted a randomized, controlled trial to evaluate the therapeutic benefit of mental practice with motor imagery in stroke patients with persistent upper limb motor weakness.
Recent studies have suggested that mental rehearsal of movement can produce effects normally attributed to practicing the actual movements. Imagining hand movements could stimulate restitution and redistribution of brain activity, which accompanies recovery of hand function, thus resulting in a reduced motor deficit. Current efficacy evidence for mental practice with motor imagery in stroke is insufficient due to methodological limitations.

This randomized controlled sequential cohort study included 121 stroke patients with a residual upper limb weakness within 6 months following stroke (on average <3 months post-stroke). Randomization was performed using an automated statistical minimizing procedure. The primary outcome measure was a blinded rating on the Action Research Arm test.

The study analyzed the outcome of 39 patients involved in 4 weeks of mental rehearsal of upper limb movements during 45-min supervised sessions three times a week and structured independent sessions twice a week, compared to 31 patients who performed equally intensive non-motor mental rehearsal, and 32 patients receiving normal care without additional training.
No differences between the treatment groups were found at baseline or outcome on the Action Research Arm Test (ANCOVA statistical P=0.77, and effect size partial η2=0.005) or any of the secondary outcome measures.

Results suggest that mental practice with motor imagery does not enhance motor recovery in patients early post-stroke. In light of the evidence, it remains to be seen whether mental practice with motor imagery is a valid rehabilitation technique in its own right.

Citation:  Ietswaart M, Johnston M, Dijkerman HC, Joice S, Scott CL, MacWalter RS, Hamilton SJ. Mental practice with motor imagery in stroke recovery: randomized controlled trial of efficacy. Brain. 2011 May;134(Pt 5):1373-86. Epub 2011 Apr 22. [email protected]