Therapeutic computer games target stroke sufferers

Researchers in Ireland are helping to design therapeutic computer games for sufferers of strokes, phobias, addictions and anxiety disorders.

A team at the Institute of Technology Carlow has helped to develop a prototype game that uses 3D goggles to repair the brain’s sense of perspective and balance following damage from a stroke.

They are also involved with companies Neurosynergy Games and Ossidian in creating applications that could increase IQ and tackle a range of mental health issues by getting users to assess the level of their problem and carry out a series of tasks to fight it.

Using games as therapy makes people more willing to repeatedly spend time using them and so the therapy is more likely to work, said IT Carlow’s Joseph Kehoe.

‘They have to be casual games that people can just pick up when they want and they need some kind of reward system,’ he told The Engineer. ‘When people get points or complete levels they are more inclined to keep playing.’

The stroke therapy, developed with Neurosynergy Games and currently undergoing clinical trials, requires users to aim at targets using a motion-controlled console, such as the Nintendo Wii, and 3D goggles.

Wii games have previously been used to help stroke victims recover use of their muscles. Neurosynergy hopes that patients playing the new game will learn to compensate for brain damage to their sense of perception caused by their stroke and adjust their bodily movements to match their new spatial awareness.

‘It is based on an existing therapy but the equipment needed to do it at the moment costs a lot of money,’ said Kehoe. ‘They’re taking that and trying to get the same functionality out of standard hardware for very little cost, while adding in the game element.’

The game needs to be set at the right level of difficulty to keep people interested, he added. ‘The ideal situation when the player is playing is it should seem like they’re going to lose up until the last minute.’

IT Carlow is also working with Neurosynergy on its IQ-EQ Brain Trainer software, which could be used to tackle social disorders such as addictions and anxiety, as well as increasing IQ.

Sufferers tend to be particularly sensitive to visual cues related to their disorders – for example, ashtrays for smokers or expressions of anger for anxiety sufferers.

The software first assesses the severity of the problem by measuring a person’s reaction time when shown disorder-related images compared with neutral images. Then it trains the user not to give so much attention to these cues.

Another firm, Ossidian, is working with IT Carlow to develop a similar tool specifically for the iPhone.

The ‘Anxt’ app, set for release next month, asks users a series of questions about their anxiety or phobia in order to measure its severity and teach them about the nature of the disorder, giving them a score each time to let them know how they are progressing.

Then it provides a programme of tasks to do – such as looking at pictures of spiders for arachnophobes – that is designed to gradually help users to control and conquer their problems.