Nathan B. Herz, OTD, OTR/L

(Photo credit: Phil Jones/Medical College of Georgia)

The Nintendo Wii may help treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, including depression, says a researcher from the Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, Ga, in a statement released by the facility.

Nathan B. Herz, OTD, OTR/L, program director and assistant professor in the School of Allied Health Sciences Department of Occupational Therapy theorized that the popular computer game console, which simulates various sports and activities, could improve coordination, reflexes and other movement-related skills, but he found additional benefits also, according to the facility. Nathan B. Herz, OTD, OTR/L

"The Wii allows patients to work in a virtual environment that’s safe, fun and motivational," said Herz, in the statement. "The games require visual perception, eye-hand coordination, figure-ground relationships, and sequenced movement, so it’s a huge treatment tool from an occupational therapy perspective."

In an 8-week pilot study, 20 Parkinson’s patients spent an hour playing the Wii three times a week for 4 weeks, according to Herz. The patients, all in a stage of the disease in which both body sides are affected but with no significant gait disturbance yet, played two games each of tennis and bowling, and one game of boxing-games entailing exercise, bilateral movement, balance, and fast pace, says the facility.

Herz said in the statement that by the middle of the study, a number of people could defeat their opponent in the first round, which amazed the researchers.

The victories were not the biggest surprise. Participants showed significant improvements in rigidity, movement, fine motor skills, and energy levels, said Herz, adding that most participants’ depression levels decreased to zero.

An estimated 45% of Parkinson’s patients are reported to suffer from depression, says the facility, but Herz suspects the actual figure is much higher.

Studies have shown that exercise and video games independently can increase the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter deficient in Parkinson’s patients, according to the facility. Herz says he suspects that is the case with the Wii’s exercise effect. Dopamine also helps improve voluntary, functional movements, which Parkinson’s patients "use or lose," Herz said in the statement.

Wii, which features simulated movements such as cracking an egg, swinging a tennis racket, and throwing a bowling ball, responds to a player’s movements rather than cues from a controller, so players can perform full body movements and see their progress on a screen.

Herz said he expects the facility is going to be using virtual reality and games a lot more because they provide a controlled physical environment that allows patients to participate in the activities they need or want to do, without worrying about environmental problems or distractions.

Herz’s research was funded by a $45,000 grant from the National Parkinson’s Foundation. Next he plans to test the Wii Fit balance board with Parkinson’s patients and expand his studies to multiple sites.

"Game systems are the future of rehab," Herz said in the statement. "About 60% of the study participants decided to buy a Wii for themselves. That speaks volumes for how this made them feel."

[Source: Medical College of Georgia]