Games for life: Using Wii to treat Parkinson’s

If Ben Herz has anything to say about it, doctors treating various neurological conditions may soon be prescribing some quality video game time—and the latest developments in video game technology may make this a lot easier.

Herz, an assistant professor of occupational therapy at the Medical College of Georgia, recently found that a regimen of Wii Sports, consisting of rounds of virtual bowling, boxing and tennis three times a week for a month, improved movement scores, quality of life measures and mood levels in people with mild Parkinson’s disease.

Herz chose Wii Sports because it relies on visual perception, specific movements and hand-eye coordination, elements that suffer early in Parkinson’s. He also hoped to take advantage of the increases in dopamine levels previous researchers had found during video game play. Such increases often help counter depression, another common symptom of Parkinson’s.

“My impression is that we would do well, and we did,” says Herz, who has also used three other games for Nintendo’s Wii console—Active Life: Outdoor Challenge, EA Sports Active and Cooking Mama—to treat people with spinal cord injuries, stroke and traumatic brain injury. For instance, measures of depression dropped significantly for 14 of the 20 people in the Parkinson’s study, and unlike physical therapy, the treatment kept participants largely motivated and eager.

The findings, which were initially presented in June at the fifth annual Games for Health Conference, will soon be submitted for publication to major research journals, Herz says. In the meantime, he hopes to do a controlled study pitting the Wii, which employs a motion-sensitive remote, against more traditionally controlled games from Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s Playstation 3. To help children who have autism, he also hopes to test the effects of Wii Fit, which adds a balance-board device to help simulate yoga, skiing and other activities, and use Wii Music, which allows players to play numerous virtual instruments.

The Wii is not the first video game system to employ a unique method of control. Arcade games have long used mock guns, steering wheels, vehicle cockpits and other elaborate input devices. At home, gamers have used plastic guitars, microphones and drum kits for Guitar Hero and other music games, and Dance Dance Revolution, which lets players step on a padded floor controller in time with hit songs, has been touted as a potential exercise tool.

But the Wii, in large part by being the first to make such a motion-control scheme standard, has significantly outsold the other next-generation consoles, bringing “active” games to millions who previously had considered video gaming a thumbs-only activity. That excitement has translated not just into new entertainment experiences but also serious attempts to solve problems, particularly health issues. Surgeons have found that they perform better after using the Wii to warm up before operations or to perform mock procedures, and software developers are working on programs for specific kinds of therapy, including some for Parkinson’s.

But the Wii’s window of dominance in this area may be in danger. At the E3 conference in early June, both Microsoft and Sony announced their own motion-control systems, both scheduled to come out as soon as next year. Microsoft’s Project Natal takes things one step further by using a motion-tracking camera instead of a controller, allowing a player to control with a game without holding on to anything. Sony’s new technology will use a “wand” device that resembles the Wii’s controller.

While it may be bad for the Wii’s sales, such standardization of motion-control inputs will make cheap and fun exercise, therapy and health training regimens like Herz’s available to tens of millions all across the world, especially since all three consoles have online stores where players can directly download games. All that remains is for researchers to quantify exactly what works best—and to convince doctors and insurers to embrace their inner gamer.

Aalok Mehta

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