Computer games designed for Parkinson’s sufferers improve gait, balance

Playing computer-based physical therapy games can help people with Parkinson’s disease improve their gait and balance, according to a new pilot study led jointly by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and games developer Red Hill Studios.

The research teams at Red Hill and UCSF produced nine “clinically inspired’’ games that were designed to improve coordination in people with Parkinson’s. More than half the subjects in the three-month research project showed small improvements in walking speed, balance and stride length, researchers said.

“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,’’ researchers said. “And when subjects mastered one game level, they often moved on to harder levels for more beneficial effect.”

The clinical team members at UCSF focused on specific body movements and gestures that their previous research had shown to be beneficial for staving off the physical declines of Parkinson’s.

The Red Hill team then designed physical games, similar to Wii and Kinect games, in which subjects win points by moving their bodies in certain ways. Each game has multiple difficulty levels so that the clinical team could customize the therapeutic games for each subject’s particular abilities.

Red Hill also developed a custom sensor suit with nine tracking sensors to analyze subjects’ movements. The PC-based system sent encrypted data to a secure database allowing the research teams to track subject performance daily.

The trial involved 20 participants in northern California with moderate levels of Parkinson’s disease. After playing the games for 12 weeks, 65 percent of game players demonstrated longer stride length, 55 percent increased gait velocity, and 55 percent reported improved balance confidence.

“These initial studies show the promise of custom-designed physical therapy games promoting specific movements and gestures that can help patients get better,’’ researchers said. “Now that we have this preliminary positive result, we want to conduct a longer term clinical trial with more subjects to confirm these initial findings.’’

The study was funded by two Small Business Innovative Research grants totaling $1.1 million from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Topics: Operations