The same technology that has people swinging imaginary rackets and bowling virtual balls for entertainment at home might help people recovering from strokes, according to research presented February 25 at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference. The pilot study, carried out at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute at the University of Toronto, suggests that video games for the Nintendo Wii could help stroke victims regain lost motor function.


"This is the first randomized clinical study showing that virtual reality using Wii gaming technology is feasible and safe and is potentially effective in enhancing motor function following a stroke,” said the study’s lead investigator, Gustavo Saposnik, in a prepared statement. “But our study results need to be confirmed in a major clinical trial.”


The study examined the Wii’s potential for helping patients recover fine motor function (such as finger dexterity) and gross motor function (such as arm movements) two months after a stroke. Twenty patients were randomly assigned to two groups: one played recreational games (such as cards or the block-stacking game Jenga); the other played virtual games such as Wii tennis and Wii Cooking Mama—a simulation game that has players cutting potatoes, peeling onions and shredding cheese. Both groups played for about six hours over the course of the two-week study.


The researchers saw a significant improvement in the speed and extent of motor recovery in patients using the Wii, and none of the adverse effects (like nausea or dizziness) that were reported in the card and block game-playing group. "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.


Nintendo Wii is a gaming system that uses wireless controllers and a motion detection system, allowing users to get rapid sensory feedback from watching their actions on a television screen. By encouraging patients to perform repetitive, high-intensity movements, the Wii activates special neurons involved in brain plasticity (the reorganization of neural networks that happens after an injury)—an important process for rehabilitation after stroke, according to Saposnik. A larger randomized study is currently under way to confirm these promising effects.

Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health/Clincal Center