Can playing a virtual reality computer game help stroke patients to get better? A team of computer scientists, psychologists and doctors working on the Rehabilitation Gaming System (RGS) think so. And they have positive outcomes to show for it, including the results of clinical studies.
The Rehabilitation Gaming System is a neurorehabilitation technology that assists in the recovery of function after lesions to the brain.
Stroke patients often have difficulties coordinating their arms and hands. They need special training to teach the brain to control again the body movements.
Of course it is not just any computer game that can help achieve this. The Rehabilitation Gaming System focuses on what scientists call functional recovery, for example reaching and grasping. In one demonstration (from approx 0:30) a patient catches differently coloured balls that come flying at him on a computer screen. The movements of his real hands are recorded by data gloves and a Kinect motion sensor and thus control the virtual hands on the screen. Over time (which may be several months) he gets better at playing catch.
“This has proven effective in forcing the brain to really use the side that was damaged during the stroke,” explains Dr Susana Rodríguez González, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation from Vall d´Hebron Hospital in Barcelona, Spain.
Gloria Bou Ferreiro, a stroke patient who was fighting for her life after giving birth to her second child agrees: “It was really motivating. I was able to greatly improve the movements of my arms, in a very subconscious, natural way.”
Prof Paul Verschure from Universidad Pompeu Fabra, the coordinator of the project, explains the theory: “The brain is an active learning machine. It continuously builds models of the world. So we thought that maybe we had to provide the brain with new forms of stimulation, new forms of goal-orientated training to make the brain believe it can perform certain tasks. And that is exactly what we do via virtual reality”. Prof Verschure goes into more detail in his blogpost.
During the last three years more than 500 patients have been treated with RGS in hospitals in Barcelona and Tarragona. In the future RGS could also be used by patients at home. All it needs is the software, a normal PC and the motion sensor on a tripod.
RGS has been developed out of a scientific project thanks to the collaboration of a number of partners within an AAL (Ambient Assisted Living) research project. It ran for 42 months and had a total budget of just under 2.3 million Euros. More than 1.9 million Euros were contributed by the European Commission.