Neuroscientists develop game for stroke rehabilitation, give the Wii a run for its money

Think the Wii has the market cornered on gaming rehab? Think again -- neuroscientists at Newcastle University are developing a series of motion controlled video games to make stroke rehab more fun and accessible. The team's first title, dubbed Circus Challenge, lets patients digitally throw pies, tame lions and juggle to help them build strength and regain motor skills. As players progress, the game ratchets up its difficulty, presumably to match pace with their recovery.

Although Limbs Alive, the game's publisher, has only described their motion controller as "next-generation," it affirms that the game will be playable on PCs, laptops and tablets later this year. In an effort to lower costs and provide at-home therapy, the team hopes to leverage a £1.5 million award from the UK's Health Innovation Challenge Fund to build a system that will allow therapists to monitor patient progress remotely. The whole enchilada still needs some time to bake, but you can hit the break for a video and the full press release.

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Action video game to aid recovery from stroke
A video game which improves and overcomes the physical symptoms of a stroke has been revealed.

Stroke experts at Newcastle University working with new company Limbs Alive Ltd have developed the first in a planned library of action video games where the movements used to control the game are designed to enable the patient to re-learn control of their weak arm and hand after stroke.

The team at Newcastle University has received a £1.5m award from the Health Innovation Challenge Fund, a partnership between the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health, to allow further development so that the stroke patient playing these games in their own home can be remotely monitored by a therapist.

After a stroke, a patient can recover control of the weak arm or hand even after a long time but this requires many months of expert, daily therapy. Providing the support and motivation to enable people to carry out such a demanding programme is costly and difficult and this often limits recovery. This is where the newly-developed suite of computer games called "Circus Challenge" can make a real difference.

These are the first action video games designed specifically to be played at home and to provide an expert therapy programme, whilst still capturing all the fun and challenge of a game used for entertainment.

Janet Eyre, Professor of Paediatric Neuroscience at Newcastle University, who also works within the Newcastle NHS Hospitals Foundation Trust, set up Limbs Alive Ltd to produce the first suite of games in association with a professional game studio.

Professor Eyre said: "The brain can re-learn control of the weak arm but this needs frequent therapy over many months and there are not enough therapists to provide this on a one-to-one basis.

"Eighty per cent of patients do not regain full recovery of arm and hand function and this really limits their independence and ability to return to work. Patients need to be able to use both their arms and hands for most every day activities such as doing up a zip, making a bed, tying shoe laces, unscrewing a jar.

"With our video game, people get engrossed in the competition and action of the circus characters and forget that the purpose of the game is therapy."

Using wireless controllers, players try their hand at such activities as lion taming, juggling, plate spinning, high diving and flying the trapeze and by working their way through increasingly difficult levels of Circus Challenge the movements required are designed to gradually build up the strength and skills of the patient.

Covering both the gross and the fine motor skills, the games have been carefully designed and finely honed with someone who has had a stroke in mind so that, for example, they can be played by someone in a wheelchair. The games gradually increase in difficulty and complexity to ensure that the stroke patient is always being challenged - but most importantly the games are designed to be fun!

Circus Challenge is at the cutting edge of technology as it employs next-generation motion controllers and has special features within the game that ensure gamers of varying abilities can play together on a level playing field. Patients can therefore play the game with relatives and friends.

The support from the Health Innovation Challenge Fund means that Limbs Alive and Newcastle University will now be able to develop the infrastructure to provide tele-monitoring so that a therapist will be able to analyse a patient's progress remotely and make recommendations about which games to play and at which level, to continue the improvement. With this funding from the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health the games can now become a tool for use by therapists, ensuring that patients can still get expert supervision and guidance, whilst undertaking therapy at home or at any time and place to suit them.

68-year-old former ship builder, Danny Mann from Dudley in Northumberland (pictured) suffered a stroke in February this year. He has been affected on the right side of his body and he has been trying out the game. He made the following observations:

"This is the first time I've ever played a video game - I mean, I don't even own a computer. It was good fun though it did feel like I was doing exercise and I worked up a sweat!

"The therapy exercises I normally have to do are dull but necessary but this game is something different which encourages me to keep going with my therapy.

"When I got the controllers I tried being a trapeze artist – something I never expected to try at my time of life.

"I would really like to play with my grandchildren - I can't think of a better motivation than sharing a game with them to help me on my road to recovery."

The company ultimately plan to apply the same principles to develop games to assist therapy in other conditions such as Cerebral Palsy, Chronic Lung Disease, Type 2 Diabetes and Dementia.

Professor Eyre added: "Patients who have played the games find them easy to use, challenging and fun! They can be easily set up and played at home since they are designed by a professional games studio to be played on a laptop or PC. Patients forget they're doing therapy and just enjoy the challenge of playing."

In the UK 150,000 people have a stroke leading to a cost of care and loss of income of £4 billion. Research has already shown that 45 minutes of exercises a day, each day, can lead to such an improvement that people can care for themselves and return to work.