Virtual Reality Games as Therapy for Children with Cerebral Palsy

Virtual reality, defined as a computer-generated environment that users can interact with in ways that mimic real-world scenarios, is an increasingly popular entertainment platform.

Its value extends beyond mere recreation, however. Virtual reality has been used for therapeutic purposes ranging from stroke recovery to phobia exposure therapy. It may also be able to mitigate the symptoms of cerebral palsy (CP).

Conventional Therapy vs. Virtual Reality Gaming

Therapy can greatly improve physical and cognitive function in people with cerebral palsy, but conventional therapy programs have high dropout rates because patients often become frustrated by high costs of participation and a perceived lack of progress.

Virtual reality games involve repetitive movements and sensory feedback, both of which are important for the development of motor skills. This means that performing tasks in a virtual world could result in real-life improvements to health. Researchers speculate that for many patients, commercially-available games may be more convenient and financially viable than in-person therapy sessions. Children, especially, may be more motivated by these games than by conventional therapy because they face specific challenges and receive positive feedback, such as progressing to a new level.

Virtual Reality Games: Actual Therapeutic Potential?

Thus far, empirical data on the efficacy of virtual reality games in treating cerebral palsy are somewhat lacking. However, case studies and clinical trials with small sample sizes show promising results. Many medical professionals agree that these games have real therapeutic value.

In 2016, researchers from the Occupational Therapy Center of the Nucleus for Integrated Medical Assistance (NAMI) at the University of Fortaleza, Brazil surveyed eight clinical experts on cerebral palsy to evaluate the potential of a particular virtual reality game in motor and cognitive rehabilitation.

The game in question was designed for cerebral palsy patients ages 0-8; they were tasked with quickly selecting specific objects on a screen – based on characteristics such as color, shape, and number – using a hand motion sensor called “Leap Motion.” The researchers also used an electroencephalographic sensor called “Mind Wave” to measure their patients’ attention levels during the game. The game increased in difficulty as the children proceeded to higher levels.

The experts surveyed were generally optimistic about the game’s potential. 87.5% of them thought that it could help with motor rehabilitation, and 50% believed it would prove useful in improving cognitive function. All of them agreed that it was likely to improve the children’s attention during treatment. They did have some concerns, including that the patients may lose interest in conventional therapies, and that the sensor may be difficult for certain patients to handle.

Conclusion: Virtual Reality Games & Cerebral Palsy Rehabilitation

Although virtual reality games are unlikely to replace in-person therapy sessions, at least not in the near future, they may serve as a valuable complement. Increased collaboration between game designers and health professionals would help to maximize both patient enjoyment and therapeutic value.


Sources

  • de Oliveira JM, Fernandes, R. C. G., Pinto, C. S., Pinheiro, P. R., Ribeiro, S., & de Albuquerque, V. H. C. (2016). Novel virtual environment for alternative treatment of children with cerebral palsy. Computational intelligence and neuroscience, Article ID 8984379, 10 pages. DOI: 10.1155/2016/8984379
  • Merians, A. S., Jack, D., Boian, R., Tremaine, M., Burdea, G. C., Adamovich, S. V., … & Poizner, H. (2002). Virtual reality–augmented rehabilitation for patients following stroke. Physical therapy, 82(9), 898-915. DOI: 10.1093/ptj/82.9.898
  • Parsons, T. D., & Rizzo, A. A. (2008). Affective outcomes of virtual reality exposure therapy for anxiety and specific phobias: A meta-analysis. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 39(3), 250-261. DOI: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2007.07.007
  • Snider, L., Majnemer, A., & Darsaklis, V. (2010). Virtual reality as a therapeutic modality for children with cerebral palsy. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 13(2), 120-128. DOI: 10.3109/17518420903357753
  • Weiss, P. L., Tirosh, E., & Fehlings, D. (2014). Role of virtual reality for cerebral palsy management. Journal of child neurology, 29(8), 1119-1124.

Virtual Reality Therapy for Cerebral Palsy

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