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Nintendo Wii Improves Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease


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By Margarita Nahapetyan

It appears that the Nintendo Wii may significantly improve symptoms of Parkinson's disease and may even help cure depression, according to the experts at the Medical College of Georgia.

A lead researcher of the study, Dr. Ben Herz, program director and assistant professor in the School of Allied Health Sciences Department of Occupational Therapy, said that the popular computer game console, which simulates various sports and activities, not only can improve coordination, reflexes and other movement-related skills, but it also has some additional benefits.

"The Wii allows patients to work in a virtual environment that is safe, fun and motivational," Dr. Herz said. "The games require visual perception, eye-hand coordination, figure-ground relationships and sequenced movement, so it appears to be a huge treatment tool from an occupational therapy perspective."

For the 8-week study purposes, the investigators involved 20 patients with Parkinson's disease, and asked them to play the Wii computer for one hour three times a week for the period of one month. All patients, being in a stage of the disease in which both sides of the body are affected but with no significant disturbance of walking yet, played two games each of tennis and bowling and one game of boxing-games that involved exercise, bilateral movement, balance and fast pace.

The results revealed that participants showed improved hand-to-eye coordination, sequenced movements, energy levels and visual perception. But what was the most surprising, during the study, most participants' depression levels went down to zero. An estimated 45 per cent of Parkinson's patients suffer from depression, though the actual figure is suspected to be much higher.

Dr. Herz was so impressed with the results that he went on to state that he and his colleagues are planning to use virtual reality and games a lot more in their studies because they provide a controlled physical environment that makes it possible for patients to participate in the activities they need or want to do. "A patient does not have to go to a bowling alley and worry about environmental problems or distractions...Game systems are the future of rehab," the expert said.

Study participants were also apparently pleased with the experience, with nearly 60 per cent of the the volunteers reporting that they have decided to buy a Wii system for themselves. That alone demonstrates how this made them feel. Wii, which features simulated movements such as cracking an egg, swinging a tennis racket and throwing a bowling ball, responds to a player's movements rather than cues from a remote controller, so players have an opportunity to do full body movements and then see their progress on a screen.

Previous research has found that physical activity and video games independently can increase the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is deficient in Parkinson's patients. Dr. Herz suspects that this is the case with the Wii's exercise effect. Dopamine also helps improve voluntary, functional movements, which Parkinson's patients "use or lose," said the researcher.

Dr. Herz plans on further tests using the Wii Fit Balance Board with Parkinsons patients. He presented his preliminary findings at the fifth annual Games for Health Conference in Boston.

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