Playing PC games can help Parkinson’s patients

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A new study at the University of California shows that playing PC games can possibly help people suffering from Parkinson’s to regain balance and improve their walking ability overall. The study consisted of each patient playing various physically based PC games, created specially for the study, and recording the results. This is great news for existing patients and could be used as preventative measures in the future.

Walk into a particular study lab at the University of California and you might think you’re in the wrong place. Instead of beakers and burners and glass tubes, instead of microchips and motherboards, you’ll find data on a group of very happy Parkinson’s patients wearing strange jumpsuits and enjoying various video games on the computer. But you’re not in the wrong place. The University of California has been doing an in-depth study on the effects of PC gaming on Parkinson’s patients since the idea was first broached. Red Hill Studios and the UCSF School of Nursing collaborated to create special games for patients suffering from Parkinson’s in an attempt to improve their overall movement and function. The idea behind the study is that repeating certain movements or motions over time can lead to increased ‘muscle memory’ and, therefore, muscle response when the proper synapse is fired in the patient’s brain.

Parkinsons games illustration

For those who may not know, Parkinson’s disease is a nervous system disorder that is one of the most common in those over 50, and among it’s various symptoms are difficulty walking, tremors or ‘shakes’, and decreased co-ordination of limbs and movement. Imagine drinking 500 cups of coffee and then getting drunk and you might have an idea of the horror that Parkinson’s patients have to deal with on a daily basis. There’s no cure, as yet, but the study by the University is a great step in the right direction to at least combating the symptoms of the disease. Since much of the resultant symptoms are related to dopamine levels in the patient’s brain, medication is an option for treatment, but new studies show that physical therapy is also just as important.

Nine games were created, overall, that were aimed at increasing the patients’ movement range and control. Each game, similar to WII or Kinect games but run on a PC, would connect to a specially designed suit that contained various sensors to record neurological data from the patient. Each patient was then tested to find the right level of difficulty for them to get the maximum benefit from the games. There were twenty participants overall and after twelve weeks, more than half of them showed improved stride length in their walk, as well as higher gait speed and balance control. More important than any of those facts, however, was the increase in self-confidence those patients showed in their own abilities. After repeating and being rewarded for certain motions and movements in the games over the course of twelve weeks, these patients not only improved in their symptoms physically, but their attitudes also improved!

Bob Hone, creative director of Red Hill Studios and the lead principal investigator for the UCSF experiment, said that, “Each subject found his or her own gaming ‘sweet spot’ – the spot where the physical challenge was not too hard, not too easy, just right. And,” he added, “when subjects mastered one game level, they often moved on to harder levels for more beneficial effect. The subjects improved their games scores while improving their gait and balance.”

Anyone who has had a serious medical condition can tell you that attitude makes a huge difference in the progression of healing or the progression of symptoms, depending on which direction their attitude is pointing. Positive thinking in terms of improvement is always a major factor, and when these patients were offered a chance to take part in an experimental therapy that consisted of playing games, they were eager to try it. The results show that a significant portion of existing, as well as future, patients of Parkinson’s can benefit from these types of games in both physical and mental ways. Having a good attitude going forward, and having fun with their physical therapy activities can only be a good thing, say experts at UCSF. If this is true, imagine the future. This type of physical treatment could be applied to any number of other ailments, with games being specifically designed and produced for each different problem to be treated. A brand new niche in the PC gaming industry.

Bob Hone also commented on the patients having a lot of fun playing these games. “From the data tracking we could see that there were some subjects who were playing the games more than the specified three times a week,” he said. “Because this was a highly structured research study, we actually had to ask them to play less than they wanted.”

Those who say PC gaming is dead may have been a bit premature or shortsighted, based on these kinds of experiments. PC gaming isn’t dead, it’s evolving, and if it evolves in a manner that helps to treat people suffering from a terrible disease like Parkinson’s, so much the better! Those of us who avidly played Pong for 400 hours and have supported the gaming industry can be proud and happy that as an indirect result of supporting it, we have helped those who are less fortunate. After all, the technology and expertise to create these very special games would not have been in place for such easy access if the industry as a whole had not come as far as it has, and that’s a direct result of people like me pouring tons of money into their gaming habit every year.

There’s been no announcement of these games becoming available to the general public yet, but who knows what the future could bring. Imagine games like this being available to help your toddlers learn movement and co-ordination. Imagine these kinds of games being available to people who were injured and need that extra boost to motivate them through physical rehabilitation? Since so many of us are gamers now, having games as part of medical and/or psychological therapy just makes sense.

So, the next time someone tells you to quit playing games and do something useful, tell them you’re helping Parkinson’s patients and suggest they read Freewaregenius.com.

Until next time, my friends!

Bibliography: University of California studies, Medical News Today, Times of India, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Parkinson Foundation, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research

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Born and raised overseas in a military family, B.C. Tietjens visited and lived in many places all over the world. He has worked on a number of publications and enjoys writing for different audiences, on such diverse subjects as relationships, technology, prestidigitation, self-improvement, entertaining children, and biographical stories. He currently writes primarily for Freewaregenius and enjoys the heck out of it.