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Strokes, which occur when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, result in the death of brain cells. Depending upon the area of the brain that sustained damage, survivors may have lasting effects including speech difficulties or loss of function and weakness in a limb. Recovering full, or nearly full, function is possible. However, this requires many months of intense therapy, which is costly and can be logistically challenging for patients who have to travel to see a therapist.
A group of stroke researchers at Newcastle University have developed a video game to help stoke patients regain limb function. The game, called “Circus Challenge,” is produced by the company Limbs Alive. In the game, players manipulate hand controls in coordinated ways to navigate a series of circus-related challenges, such as trapeze-swinging or lion-taming. Earlier levels require lesser degrees of gross and fine motor coordination, while later levels are more involved. As the participant meets the challenges of a particular level and moves on to the next, they see improvements in motor function.
Janet Eyre is a professor of Pediatric Neuroscience at Newcastle University, one of the game developers, and a founder of the Limbs Alive company. She explains the utility of the software:
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 percent 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.
The game is specifically designed to be played by someone who has had a stroke; for instance, it’s fully accessible to those who are wheelchair-bound. The developers hope to eventually integrate the ability for a physical therapist to watch remotely as a patient plays the game at home, which would allow the therapist to periodically check in and track progress.