Children with cerebral palsy (CP) may improve their touch and hand sensitivity by playing “serious video games,” according to a small study. More studies are necessary, however, to confirm this finding.
The study is part of a PhD project conducted by David Hobbs from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.
Most treatments for CP patients try to exercise muscles throughout the body and improve muscle stiffness, movement control, and posture so patients can be independent while doing daily activities, such as feeding or dressing. However, exercise therapies can sometimes feel like work, and kids with CP may quickly lose their interest and engagement.
CP children may also be less sensitive to touch and have difficulties knowing where their hand is relative to other parts of the body, a phenomenon called proprioception. This lack of sensitivity also brings difficulties in manipulating and recognizing objects using their hands alone.
“My interest in this area, and the subject of my doctoral studies, relates to how children with CP use their hands,” Hobbs said in a news release. “Most children with CP typically have a dominant hand, the one they use all the time for all activities, and a non-dominant hand. The non-dominant hand is the target for most therapy, as improving the function of that particular hand should lead to greater independence for the child overall.”
Wondering whether a task requiring children to focus their attention on both hands would improve hand sensation and function, Hobbs and his team tested the effect of playing serious video games — games whose purpose is to improve physical ability and health, besides entertainment.
This type of video game has been used in CP children for decades, but studies using this approach measure motor function improvement, but not touch and hand sensitivity.
Hobbs and his team developed the OrbIT gaming system, a home-based system designed for children with limited hand function.
“The system comes in two parts: a laptop that runs all the custom-made computer games, and a spherical or orb-shaped controller that promotes accessibility, and is how the child interacts with each game,” Hobbs said.
The round controller is easy to use and does not require finger control, but detects when children remove their hands from its surface, pausing the game until both hands are placed on top of it again. “We’ve found this to be a very powerful way to ensure that both hands are always engaged with the controller, which is a requirement for therapy,” Hobbs said.
Researchers tested OrbIT in kids with CP and their families in Adelaide, Australia, for a month and a half. They saw that OrbIT improved social interaction among siblings because both children with and without the disease could play the games.
“Most children loved having OrbIT at home and didn’t want to return it at the end of the trial,” Hobbs said. “Parents made some encouraging observations following the experience: One child talked more during the trial as he would talk game strategy with his sister to improve her game play. Another child began to talk to visitors about disability and ‘his CP’ when they saw OrbIT on the dining room table as it became a talking point. Another parent noted that her son learnt considerable hand control through using the controller.”
Results also showed that patients’ non-dominant hands performed better in tests of hand function and manipulation after the use of OrbIT. However, a larger study is necessary to validate OrbIT’s effect in touching and hand sensitivity.
“As technology improves and smart devices become ubiquitous, so will gaming, but not just because players want to get a high score,” Hobbs said. “People will be gaming for their health, well-being and personal development.”