Wii-Hab: Gaming’s Contribution to Treating Parkinson’s Disease

With every move you make, a chemical called dopamine sends a message to your brain to tell your muscles to function. When the dopamine supply is seriously depleted, messages cannot be transmitted efficiently, and the body cannot respond as easily. Imagine having your supply of dopamine cut down by eighty percent. That’s Parkinson’s disease (PD). With a bevy of medications available to deal with both physical and cognitive symptoms, the real challenge is finding non-pharmaceutical forms of relief.

Fortunately, good doctors prescribe exercise as seriously as they do drugs. A study at the University of Pittsburgh found that an exercise regimen slowed down the degeneration of nerve cells in rats with PD. Research is now occurring to find concrete evidence that this benefit also applies to humans.

Recently, a forward-thinking man named Dr. Ben Herz garnered a $45,000 grant from the National Parkinson’s Foundation to perform a study of his own. At the Medical College of Georgia, Dr. Herz determined that the Nintendo Wii may help treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, including impaired motor skills and depression. Dr. Herz, director of the School of Allied Health Sciences Department of Occupational Therapy, presented his preliminary findings at the 2009 Games for Health Conference in Boston.

He theorized that the Wii, which simulates sports and activities, could aid in improving coordination, reflexes and fine motor-skills. Patients can use Wii as an occupational therapy tool on their own, administering a sense of autonomy and control.

In the eight-week pilot study, twenty Parkinson’s patients spent an hour playing the Wii three times a week for a month. These patients played two games each of bowling and tennis, as well as a game of boxing. These games were chosen because they require balance, a quick pace, and exercise.

Participants showed notable improvements in rigidity, movement, fine motor skills, energy and depression. Since depression afflicts an estimated forty-five percent of patients, this aspect of the study is particularly inspiring. Studies show that both video games and exercise can enhance the brain’s ability to produce dopamine. Dr. Herz believes that is why the Wii’s exercise aspect has such a positive effect on patients.

Although Dr. Herz doesn’t claim to have found an alternative to medicine, he is certain that game systems are truly the future of rehabilitation. It seems fairly obvious that these effects should be explored further – for PD as well as other neurological and degenerative disorders.

British physiotherapist Rebecca Redmond has created a website (wiihabilitation.co.uk) and online community for people who use the Wii as a form of rehabilitation. The site has a place for both professionals and the public to learn and discuss the benefits of Wii. Redmond also posts articles and findings on her Twitter feed: @Wii_Hab.

After the Wii study concluded, about sixty percent of the participants chose to purchase their own consoles. As with any ailment, finding a remedy that offers relief is a welcome gift. Parkinson’s disease is on the forefront of stem cell research, with a cure truly possible in the near future. Until then, therapies like Wii should be used in conjunction with pharmaceutical drugs to slow the disease’s progression and enhance a patient’s quality of life.