Objective: To investigate the effect of mental practice on the learning of a sequential task for the lower limb in a patient with a hemiparesis resulting from a stroke.
Design: A single-case study.
Setting: Research laboratory of a university-affiliated rehabilitation center.
Patient: A right-handed 38-year-old man who had suffered a left hemorrhagic subcortical stroke 4 months prior.
Intervention: The patient practiced a serial response time task with the lower limb in 3 distinct training phases over a period of 5 weeks: 2 weeks of physical practice, 1 week of combined physical and mental practice, and then 2 weeks of mental practice alone.
Main outcome measures: Performance on the task measured through errors and response times. Imagery abilities measured through questionnaires.
Results: The patient's average response time improved significantly during the 1st 5 days of physical practice (26%) but then failed to show further improvement during the following week of physical practice. The combination of mental and physical practice during the 3rd week yielded additional improvement (10.3%), whereas the following 2 weeks of mental practice resulted in a marginal increase in performance (2.2%).
Conclusion: The findings show that mental practice, when combined with physical practice, can improve the performance of a sequential motor skill in people who had a stroke, and suggest that mental practice could play a role in the retention of newly acquired abilities.