Computer game that teaches circus tricks could be fun, cheap way for stroke patients to regain independence

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UPDATED:

16:14 GMT, 17 May 2012

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Danny Mann, from Dudley, Northumberland, tests Circus Challenge as an innovative way of overcoming a stroke

Danny Mann, from Dudley, Northumberland, tests Circus Challenge as an innovative way of overcoming a stroke

A computer game based on circus tricks could prove a fun and inexpensive way for stroke patients to regain their independence, researchers believe.

Newcastle University neuroscientists have created a library of interactive games in which players try to master skills such as lion taming, juggling, plate-spinning, trampolining and flying on the trapeze.

Hidden among the fun of the Circus Challenge games are dozens of hand, arm and wrist movements designed to help patients regain control of limbs weakened by stroke.

For instance, a patient who moves the wireless, handheld control box in the motions needed to spin plates will inadvertently be going through all the movements needed to do up a zip.

Janet Eyre, professor of paediatric neuroscience, hopes that that used regularly at home, the games will plug a vital gap in rehabilitation for the stroke survivors.

Some 150,000 Britons have a stroke each year and 80 per cent are left with a weakness down one side of the body.

While most of these will learn to walk again, just one in five will regain enough control of their arm to be independent.

Physiotherapy is in short supply on the NHS, with 20 per cent of patients not receiving any on leaving hospital and few still being treated after three months, said Professor Eyre.

The games are designed to that feedback can be sent to physiotherapists, to allow them to monitor progress.

The game in action: Users learn a variety of circus tricks - but these tools can also re-build their skills during the fun

The game in action: Users learn a variety of circus tricks – but these tools can also re-build their skills during the fun

It is hoped that the games, which are planned for the general market, as well as health service use, will allow physiotherapists to treat more patients.

Professor Eyre said: '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.

'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 for therapy.'

The designers hope the Circus Challenge game could prove a fun, cheaper alternative to traditional methods

The designers hope the Circus Challenge game could prove a fun, cheaper alternative to traditional methods

The project has benefited from 1.5million from the Health Innovation Challenge Fund, a partnership between the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health, to allow further development.

The first video games could be on sale early next year and a scheme in which information on patients' progress is fed back to the NHS in place within two years.

It is hoped the concept can be adapted to produce games to help people with other conditions from cerebral palsy to dementia.

Professor Eyre said: 'Patients forget they're doing therapy and just enjoy the challenge of playing.'

Dr Peter Coleman, of the Stroke Association, said: 'Weakness of an arm, leg or both is the most visible and widely recognised effect of having a stroke, with around 80 per cent of stroke survivors experiencing problems with movement.

'Physiotherapy is fundamental to helping stroke survivors regain movement after a stroke. However, sadly with on-going cuts to health and social care budgets, gaining access to services such as physiotherapy is becoming increasingly difficult.

'New technologies can be used by stroke survivors in their own homes. However, it's important that they do not replace physiotherapists but instead support the vital work they do.'

The chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, said: 'Recovering from a stroke can be a very long and painful process.

'I am delighted that this example of remarkable innovation in the NHS will bring real benefits to patients.

'The Government is committed to supporting such work and bringing breakthroughs from every area – even video gaming – to the front line of patient care.'

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