An ongoing study in Australia is showing how computer games can help patients recovering from strokes, brain injuries, amputations and other conditions. The study is the largest trial of its kind to utilize computer gaming technology in rehabilitation. The George Institute’s Professor Cathie Sherrington is leading this study that is testing a wide range of technologies. Patients participating in the study in hospitals in both Sydney and Adelaide are playing a mix of games commercially available on the market, like Xbox and Nintendo Wii, along with games that have been specially developed for rehabilitation. Sydney’s Bankstown Hospital’s physiotherapy gym is called the Hall of Champions and houses 8 gadgets that are part of this three-year project backed by the National Health and Medical Research Council to the tune of $1.3 million. Professor Sherrington explains, “There’s quite a lot of diversity in the range of problems that people experience after a stroke or brain injury. So it’s likely that different technologies will be more suited to different individuals.” A Research Fellow at the George Institute, Dr. Leanne Hassett describes the customized games as “‘exer-gaming’ type technologies and then we have a stepping tile system which was developed specifically for the trial.” The more patients practice, the better outcomes they are getting. It isn’t easy work either, explains Dr. Hassett, “It’s really difficult for patients to do lots of practice and to keep standing up and sitting down . . . doing multiple repetitions.”

Re-Learning Basic Skills Playing Games

Some of the computer programs that are movement – based games have been proving that they can help stroke survivors re-master some basic skills. ‘FysioGaming’ is a new technology that was developed in the Netherlands. The program provides real-time information to physiotherapists with feedback about how patients are performing target activities. The therapists also explain that it is fun for the patients, and may convince patients who might normally be reluctant to move around to actually move more. In addition to re-mastering some basic skills, patients are rewarded with on-screen prizes such as jewels or a certificate. The motivation helps patients move more while their exercises and progress is accurately tracked. These programs and computer games have worked well even with older patients who are not used to computer games at all.

How the Stepping Tile System Works

The stepping tile system mentioned earlier was specifically developed for this research and is made with a 3D printer. This allows the flexibility to customize the steps for each patient. The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) developed these laser-cut tiles especially for this research study. Therapists assisted patients through a series of specific exercises on the stepping tile system, which are pressure sensitive acrylic tiles, and received immediate feedback on how the patients performed in the areas of weight distribution, balance, and strength. The researchers learned that initiating this stepping tile system game therapy as soon as possible was a vital part of achieving positive results for patients, especially those who have survived a stroke.

Portable Gaming Therapy Patients Can Take Home

While patients learn how to correctly use gaming therapy while still at the hospital, doctors, therapists, and researchers all agree that patients make more strides toward recovery in the comfort of their own homes. Therefore, they are working to make the gaming technology portable, and even mobile, so that they can be accessed on their own smartphones or other mobile devices. This way, patients can take the technology home with them and download an application from the app store to access the program themselves. The more patients can practise at home, the better the chance of recovery. Researchers will follow their patients for 6 months to evaluate whether the technology helped increase the independence of patients both in hospital and at home. This technology is quite costly, but an economist is on board to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of this approach compared with more traditional of therapies.

Using new technology to improve patient rehabilitation is one of the best ways to use gaming. There is a promising outlook for movement style games to help patients recover from strokes, other types of brain injuries, amputations and other conditions that affect mobility. Promoting independence is a big part of the goals of this new gaming technology. The games help patients re-learn basic skills. The newly developed tile stepping system can be customised to each patient and works at helping specific movements, strength building, and balance. All of these technologies might soon be available for patients to take home with them after being trained at a hospital or rehabilitation facility by a trained physiotherapist. Recovery for stroke survivors and others with similar injuries has taken another step forward thanks to this new research on gaming therapy.