Peeling onions and playing tennis on Wii virtual reality videogames may help stroke patients with mild to moderate impairment regain their ability to use their arms and hands, according to a study by Heart and Stroke Foundation funded researcher Dr. Gustavo Saposnik, a neurologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

The study is the first randomized clinical trial to show that virtual reality is a feasible, safe and potentially effective treatment of stroke. “This study takes us one step closer in understanding the potential benefits of using technology like the Wii in neurorehabilitation,” says Dr. Saposnik.

Dr. Saposnik’s team used Wii Sports (tennis) and Cooking Mama to see if these games could help stroke patients improve their fine motor skills. The cooking game uses movements that replicate peeling an onion, cutting a potato and shredding cheese.

The idea came to Dr. Saposnik while playing a friendly game of Wii tennis with his five-year-old daughter. At one point, she said, “ This is unfair – you have more skills than me!” Being a left-handed player, Dr. Saposnik switched his virtual tennis racket to his right hand. “It was more challenging and I didn’t win, but after a few games, I was improving. I realized that this could be something interesting in stroke rehab where people have lost those fine motor skills.”

Researchers recruited 22 patients within two months of having a stroke. Among those who were eligible, he randomized them to either use the Wii or to do recreational therapy, which involves playing cards, bingo or Jenga. Half the group received eight, 60-minute Wii sessions over two weeks. Both groups also received the same amount of therapy – both occupational and physical.

The basic principles of rehabilitation involves repetition. Virtual reality games provide repetitive, high-intensity tasks that work to re-activate neurons involved in the brain. “By allowing the users to interact with a simulated environment, they receive instant feedback on their performance while making practice more interesting in a safe environment.”

At the end of the trial, participants were asked to complete tasks to measure their abilities. The Wii group performed tasks faster, showing more improvement in their fine motor skills. They also had better grip strength.

With these promising pilot results, Dr. Saposnik and his team are already working on a larger, randomized study. “For recovering stroke patients, this is something that, if proven effective, could be easily implemented in their rehab program while improving not only their motor skills, but also their quality of life

“I was lucky to get funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation. They have been very helpful in getting me this far,” he says. “We are hoping that, with a larger scale study, we can make recommendations about how stroke patients can speed their recovery.”

Disclaimer:Nintendo Co., Ltd., had no involvement in this study. Neither the Heart and Stroke Foundation nor the authors endorse the use of Nintendo products in the treatment of stroke. The information contained in this article is provided for reference and education only and is not intended to be a substitute for a physician’s advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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Posted: June 2010