Video games help patients with rehab

April 22, 2010 7:09:52 PM PDT
Researchers at UCSF are teaming up with a Bay Area gaming company to help patients with degenerative diseases. The result is a new wave of interactive video games, specially designed to target their symptoms.

In her 70s, Parkinson's patient Sue Lifschiz might not fit the profile of a hard-core gamer, but she's definitely motivated.

"I want to be able to easily get in and out of bed, roll over in bed. I want my leg muscles strong enough so that I can get up out of a chair," says Sue.

Those everyday movements are getting increasingly difficult because Sue is battling Parkinson's disease, but now researchers at UCSF are hoping to help her in that fight with a game controlled by a motion sensor on her arm.

"So we're taking gestures that have proved effective in a laboratory and clinical setting and putting them in real world games," says Glenna Dowling from the UCSF School of Nursing.

Dowling and Marsha Melnick began by studying hundreds of Parkinson's patients and how the disease was effecting their bodies. They came up with precise movements and exercises that would help counteract that deterioration. But instead of taking them to a physical therapist, they brought their data to the gaming engineers at Red Hill Studios in San Rafael.

"Then to hear all the ideas of 'OK, here's this one movement, here's what you want to get out of the movement, and here's the games we can possible play to get that movement,'" says Melnick.

"Because the game is to find the motion that's therapeutic to the patient and build a game that elicits that motion that can be used for any rehab," says Bob Hone, the creative director of Red Hill Studios.

Hone and his team came up with dozens of concepts for games, then began testing them on patients. The up-and-down pushing motion on the hand car in one game was designed to help exercise the muscles patients use to get out of a chair.

"It all comes down to interactivity and are we producing good challenge for the patient; that's why games work," says Hone.

The result is software that's targeted much more precisely than off-the-shelf games like the popular Wii. Meanwhile, Sue is continuing rehabilitation with the Parkinson's prototype.

"To me, if I can maintain what I have, that's progress," says Sue.

Another version in development right now is being tailored for patients suffering from cerebral palsy. And the project is getting support from the federal government. UCSF and Red Hill Studios have just been awarded grants from the National Institutes of Health totaling more than $1 million.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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