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The Healing Power of Video Games

Motion-tracking video games are aiding stroke patients’ rehabilitation and even are helping some with long-term disabilities regain the use of their limbs.

healingIn the U.S. alone, nearly 800,000 people suffer a stroke every year – about one person every 40 seconds – and only 10 percent recover fully. For these victims, many of whom suffer disabilities and are faced with a long and challenging rehabilitation process, the promise that video games bring is welcome news.

Researchers at Burke Medical Research Institute in White Plains, N.Y., developed a video game to test whether stroke patients would be comfortable using a video game in their rehabilitation. Using an infrared motion-capture device that detects hand movements, the patient controls an airplane through a series of obstacles which increase in difficulty as they progress. While researchers originally developed the game as a pilot to test whether patients will actually use it, the initial results were much more promising. Researchers found significantly improved motor function in each participant, with some patients partially regaining the use of previously impaired limbs.

Other games use customized controllers to make patients’ therapy more enjoyable. Flint Rehabilitation Devices created MusicGlove, a video game-based rehabilitation device that helps patients improve dexterity by strengthening hand and arm muscles. While wearing a specialized glove, patients grip their hand in different positions to match song visualizations, similar to Harmonix’s Guitar Hero games. The device, which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, tracks improvements in a patient’s strength and speed over time, offering a visual progress report that helps many stay focused and motivated.

In addition to affecting motor control, strokes often impair brain function. Neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins University are using a specialized version of the commercial game I Am Dolphin in stroke therapy. As players move a dolphin through a physics-based world, eating fish and dodging predators, researchers hope that their increased brain activity will help repair cognitive damage. At the same time, the first-of-its-kind simulation will offer valuable data on naturalistic behaviors and brain function that may help researchers unlock how both healthy and brain-injured people learn.

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