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Swapping bitter pills with virtual play

Doctors’ prescriptions are usually about swallowing bitter pills but all that may change.

delhi Updated: Feb 28, 2010 01:53 IST

Doctors’ prescriptions are usually about swallowing bitter pills but all that may change.

More than one study shows that playing video games helps ill people get better faster, so if your doctor is not Jurassic, you can consider asking him to make his prescriptions a little livelier.

First, the disclaimer.

This column is about all recreational video gaming systems that involve mind, hand and eye coordination.

This pretty much covers everything, from PC games to Playstation and X-Box, but the Wii gets special mention simply because two scientific studies out on Friday underscored its benefits in treating depression and stroke.

The Wii has a remote with motion-sensing capabilities to simulate actions used in playing an actual sport, such as swinging the remote like a tennis racket.

Players can see their actions on a television screen with real-time sensory feedback.

A University of California study found that playing an exergame -- video games that combine game play with exercise -- on the Nintendo Wii for 35-minutes, three times a week, improved mood and quality of life in depressed adults.

Five Wii Sports games were used: tennis, bowling, baseball, golf or boxing. The study will appear in the March issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Wii games were also found to help stroke patients improve motor function, reported another study at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2010.

The games, chosen to focus on movements to help both fine (small muscle) and gross (large muscle) motor function in the hands, were Tennis and Cooking Mama, which involves simulating cutting a potato, peeling an onion, slicing meat and shredding cheese.

The study found that the Wii group achieved a better motor function, both fine and gross, manifested by improvement in speed and grip strength, than those who played recreational games such as cards or Jenga, a block stacking and balancing game.

Scientific studies such as these are fuelling product development that taps into the positive potential of video games and other popular technology to improve human health.

Already, video games are being used to teach children healthy skills for self-care of asthma and diabetes, increasing compliance to treatment.

Last year, the medical journal Pediatrics reported that video games enhanced the effectiveness of treatment in young cancer patients, who reported better treatment compliance and reported fewer side-effects, such as less nausea and lower blood pressure.

The study used a game called Re-Mission that involved players pilot a microscopic robot through the bodies of fictional cancer patients, blasting away cancer cells and battling the side-effects of cancer treatments at 34 medical centres in the United States, Canada and Australia. (The game can be downloaded from www.re-mission.net).

That apart, gaming helped children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to self-regulate brain-wave patterns to improve learning by controlling brain-wave activity, which is too slow or too fast in certain areas of the brain in people with ADHD.

Now soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are benefiting from video gaming too.

Researchers at the University of Southern California have developed a game that treats PTSD sufferers by making them relive trauma-inducing experiences -- such as roadside bomb attacks and urban warfare -- in a controlled environment, so that doctors can help them work through it.

It’s really a win-win situation. If gaming makes you feel better, great.

If it doesn’t, it is still a more fun way of passing the time than worrying about forgetting your next dose of medicine.