A vast network which brings together specialists from 53 European centres in 13 EU countries, Switzerland and Turkey, has led to the development of computer tools for the evaluation and rehabilitation of brain-damaged patients.
Two per cent of Western Europe's population
is suffering from the effects of a cerebral attack or disease. The
most common of these phenomena are cerebro-vascular attacks, fatal
in fifty percent of cases and affecting 170 out of 100000 people
every year. If other illnesses affecting the brain are taken into
consideration (such as tumours or cases of encephalitis), 7 million
Europeans are affected. Such patients are disabled to various degrees,
suffering problems with speech, loss of memory or vision, difficulties
with organisation and attention, paralysis, etc., and nearly always
depend on outside help.
Sharing, as opposed to following different practices
"Various methods of rehabilitation designed to restore a certain autonomy to persons suffering from cerebral lesions have existed for a number of years. The different kinds of expertise in this field have, however, remained highly compartmentalised in the various countries of Europe," explains Professor Franz Josef Stachowiak (University of Leipzig). "This concerted research action was therefore launched to devise standards for this type of examination and treatment."
On the initiative of Professors Stachowiak and Deloche (of the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière in Paris), 53 European centres in 13 countries of the EU, Switzerland and Turkey were grouped together in 1990. Their objective was to enhance the progress of, and harmonise methods for, evaluating handicaps and rehabilitation programmes for patients. It took the consortium three years to devise a series of computer programs which rehabilitation centres would then be able to adapt to their requirements.
Their mission was accomplished in the spring of 1992: "We developed and tested a series of computerised tools to evaluate and rehabilitate patients suffering from a cerebral problem, particularly in the areas of speech, memory, attention and visual problems, which are the most widely encountered problems," clarifies Professor Stachowiak.
Helping patients to regain a certain independence
To treat the problems of "visual negligence" for instance (in which a patient with damage to the right hemisphere of the brain "neglects" objects or actions on his left), there now exists a whole series of tests - developed under the supervision of a team from Rome - making it possible to evaluate all the parameters of this disorder. Computer-assisted therapies are all the more effective in this context, in that they can be specifically adapted to each patient's case.
A group of European researchers has also devised a clinical test making it possible to evaluate the seriousness of aphasia. This disorder is denoted by a loss of speech and/or speech comprehension, sometimes even loss of comprehension of writing and reading. It affects about a million people in the European Union. With English, French, Dutch and Italian versions (and soon Spanish and Greek), this test compares the data on patients of different languages and makes it possible to carry out international studies. A computerised language therapy programme also offers exercises in dictation, sentence structuring and language comprehension. "This type of tool is also used by independent organisations whose purpose is to help patients regain a certain autonomy. Above all, this approach brings considerable relief to patients in the management of their daily social life. This strengthening of their ability to take care of themselves is also very positive in terms of public health expenditure."
The long-lasting success of the network effect
"The establishment of the network - which is still active and which has given rise to new European projects - has made it possible to pool a great deal of knowledge among researchers and specialised institutions. This cooperation has led to a standardisation of test procedures and rehabilitation methods," concludes Professor Stachowiak. "Some tests developed in the network context have thus acquired the status of an official standard giving their authors commercial rights."