Objective: A randomized controlled observer-blind trial was designed to evaluate the effectiveness of action observation as an add-on treatment to the standard rehabilitation of upper-limb function, early after stroke.
Methods: Stroke survivors (N = 102) were consecutively recruited from 13 centers 30 days (±7) after a first-ever stroke and randomly assigned to the experimental (EG) or control group (CG). EG participants watched video footage of daily routine tasks (actions) carried out with the upper limb in order to prepare to imitate the presented action. At the end of each sequence, a therapist prompted the patient to perform the same movement for 2 minutes, providing help when needed. Static images without animals or human beings were shown to the CG. At the end of each sequence, the CG executed movements that simulated the shoulder and elbow joint mobilization activities performed by the EG.
Results: for the Fugl-Meyer test, Frenchay Arm test, Box and Block test (BBT), Modified Ashworth Scale, and Functional Independence Measure Motor items were recorded before treatment (T0), after 4 weeks of treatment (T1), and at the follow-up visit 4 to 5 months after the conclusion of treatment (T2). Results. An improvement over time was appreciated on all measures of impairment and functional ability with both treatment programs. A Time × Treatment interaction emerged from the generalized estimating equations analysis of BBT, showing significant T0-T1 and T0-T2 differences in favor of EG.
Conclusion: This multicenter trial endorses the use of action observation in upper-extremity rehabilitation, along with a role for the mirror neuron system in poststroke recovery.