Could a real hope of improving the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease — here, now, in their own homes — lie in a computer game? With major drug breakthroughs still tantalisingly out of reach, many health professionals and people with Parkinson’s are suddenly excited by the dramatic improvements in function and wellbeing being brought by simply playing the Nintendo Wii — a games system available on every high street that simulates sports and other activities by transferring your movements to the computer screen.

This summer, the Medical College of Georgia in the United States announced the striking results of its research into the effects of “Wii-hab” on people with Parkinson’s disease. In an eight-week study, 18 people were asked to play Wii Sports, including virtual versions of boxing and ten-pin bowling, for an hour a day, three times a week for four weeks. By the end of that time all the participants showed significant improvements in rigidity, movement, fine motor skills and energy levels. Importantly, their depression levels also decreased; depression affects around half of people with Parkinson’s disease.

“I can honestly say I was very surprised by how large the improvements were, particularly on depression,” says Dr Ben Herz, an occupational therapist and assistant professor in the School of Allied Health Sciences at Medical College of Georgia. “The Wii allows patients to work in a virtual environment that’s safe, fun and motivational.” The games require visual perception, hand-eye co-ordination and sequenced movement, so it’s a huge treatment tool from an occupational therapy perspective.

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