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Video Game Helps Stroke Patients Regain Motor Skills

Scientists at Newcastle University create a Wii-Style game that makes therapy fun and challenging with circus themed play.

Allie Walker
Allie Walker on June 2, 2012. @NYC_Allie

Limbs Alive, a company created by scientists at Newcastle University, has created a Wii-style video game to help patients recovering from a stroke regain functionality in their arms and hands. The ‘Circus Challenge’ game serves as ‘playful’ outpatient therapy for the patients; patients perform tasks in the game that strengthen their muscles and help the brain re-learn movements damaged in the stroke.

Patients perform simple movements like raising their arms to shoulder height or pumping their arms up and down, which correspond to actions within the on-screen game. So that when a patient raises their arms, they aren’t just performing repetitive motions, they’re taming lions or learning how to be a trapeze artist, effectively transforming the mundane, and often challenging act of therapy into game play. What used to be dull, tedious exercises have become a fun way for a patient to rehabilitate their gross and fine motor skills.

The game’s difficulty increases as the patient recovers, with the intention that a patient will continue to play until he or she has regained full use of the hand or arm damaged by the stroke. To ensure patients are receiving the treatment they need to recover, their progress is tracked and sent to a therapist for review. Game engineers and mathematicians at Limbs Alive also review the data from patients’ game-play to ensure the game is facilitating rehabilitation.

Janet Eyre, the leading professor behind the project at Newcastle, explains the premise behind ‘Circus Challenge:’

The brain can re-learn control of the weak arm but this needs frequent therapy over many months and there are not enough therapists to provide this on a one-to-one basis… with our video game, people get engrossed in the competition and action of the circus characters and forget that the purpose of the game is therapy.

The game could be a turning point for both therapy procedures and costs. Over 100,000 people in the UK suffer from strokes each year, with up to 80% never fully regaining the use of their arms and hands- a fact that costs the country billions of pounds a year. Such a large percentage of patients don’t fully recover because of the demanding and costly nature of therapy. For the best chance at a full recovery, patients need to exercise their weakened muscles for at least 45 minutes a day, often for an entire year before they can return to work and live independently.

Boredom and frustration with the exercises, the high cost of having a daily visit from a therapist, or having to go to a hospital or facility for treatment every day causes many patients to quit. The Limbs Alive game alleviates the tedious nature of therapy while providing a low-cost option for patients, and can even be played by people in wheelchairs. The game works on any computer or tablet, and can also be played on a TV through an HDMI cord. Players only need to invest in wireless controllers to start playing.

Watch a stroke patient play Circus Challenge and Janet Eyre explain the game in the video below:

Limbs Alive

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