Wii use may aid stroke recovery: study

Playing virtual reality video games may help recovering stroke patients to move more easily, a small Canadian study suggests.

Playing virtual reality video games may help recovering stroke patients to move more easily, a small Canadian study suggests.

The randomized clinical study found that virtual reality gaming was a safe and feasible way to improve motor function after stroke, Dr. Gustavo Saposnik, a neurologist and director of the Stroke Outcomes Research Unit at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

The findings were presented on Thursday at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference 2010 in San Antonio, Texas.

The study looked at 20 survivors, aged 41 to 83, with mild to moderate strokes. The strokes were both ischemic, the most common type in which a blood clot blocks an artery supplying blood to the brain, and hemorrhagic, which occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures causing bleeding.

Participants were randomly assigned to play recreational games, cards or a block-stacking and balancing game, or Wii video games.

Wii differs from other video game systems in that it uses a wireless controller or paddle that senses the user's movements and responds with real-time feedback the user senses. The player simulates movements of hands, tools, sports equipment or weapons using the controller, which makes it more active than traditional console video games.  

For example in Wii cooking, the gamer uses a paddle to simulate movements such as cutting a potato, peeling an onion and shredding cheese.

Both groups received eight sessions of about 60 minutes each over two weeks. The sessions started about two months after the stroke.

"Basically, we found that patients in the Wii group achieved a better motor function, both fine and gross, manifested by improvement in speed and grip strength," Saposnik said.

Broader rehab benefits

Those in the Wii therapy group showed a seven-second faster performance in the tasks compared with the others, which Sapsonik called "meaningful."

"In other words, imagine that you have for every task you are doing, instead of doing that in 20 seconds, it will take you 27 seconds for each activity that you do on a daily basis. That would be an impressive prolonged time."

No one in the Wii group showed side-effects, while one person in the card and block-stacking group had nausea or dizziness.

He cautioned that it is too early to recommend that stroke patients play Wii, because a larger study that is now underway needs to confirm the results.

Saposnik suspects that the virtual reality games helped because it used the same principles of performing repetitive, high-intensity tasks as traditional rehabilitation that activate special neurons involved in reorganizing the brain's cortex.

Vera Fung, a member of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association and a clinical researcher at St. John's Rehab Hospital in Toronto, said she wasn't surprised by the stroke findings.

About two years ago, her institute tested Nintendo Wii technology for helping stroke patients, cardiac transplant patients, amputees, burn patients and people with total knee and hip replacements.

All of the games showed potential for restoring motor function, as well as balance and standing tolerance while keeping patients motivated, Wang said.

With files from The Canadian Press