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Children 09 Oct 2014

Video games that help children in rehabilitation

The Colombian Laura Parra, the winner of the Innovators Under 35 award in 2013, organized by MIT Technology Review in its Spanish edition in partnership with BBVA, has developed a video game that helps children with mobility problems in their rehabilitation therapy.

Rehabilitation can be boring and exhausting, especially for children who do not understand the importance of the therapy. Developing a fun and, at the same time, effective system is the aim of the electronics engineer Laura Parra, who at the age of 24 won the Innovators Under 35 Colombia 2013 award organized by MIT Technology Review in its Spanish edition in partnership with BBVA for her video games to help children with mobility problems.

How useful are video games in rehabilitation?

They help them accomplish with their mind what their body doesn’t enable them to do, by moving through their character. This is very beneficial for their mental health. Children are also attracted by the didactic and interactive side of video games.

It’s a very pleasant therapy because they can do rehabilitation while they play”

Is rehabilitation harder for children?

Yes, because adults are aware that they need to do their exercises, but children don’t understand that they can help them, and they refuse to do them. Our system persuades children to do them in a fun way.

Fun, but equally effective?

It has been proven that, in addition to being more fun for children, it’s also more effective. On the one hand, the therapist’s job is more pleasant, and on the other children are more interested. The didactic approach makes the therapy easier.

What kind of patients could benefit from your video games?

So far we’ve only worked with two patients. A girl with spina bifida who couldn’t control her legs and a boy with mobility problems. We want to do some trials with more people because the results obtained until now are qualitative, through the opinions of the therapists, who have found a greater willingness on the part of patients to complete their therapy. Children are more interested and that motivates us to continue.

Could it be used for other kinds of disorders like cerebral palsy?

Our idea is to develop a standard video game for all kinds of diseases. We haven’t tried with cerebral palsy, but video games for children with different problems could certainly be researched and developed. The idea is to help children with mobility problems in general.

The idea is to help children with mobility problems in general”

What innovation does your technology offer compared with other rehabilitation methods using video games?

We work with open software and hardware platforms, so we avoid large investments. Also, because the sensors are placed on the patient, our system enables the physical therapist to interact with the child, without this interfering with the video game control.

So, the children control their characters using sensors?

The system has accelerometers that are placed on the patient’s legs or on the orthosis [the prosthesis used during rehabilitation therapy] to identify whether they’re sitting or standing and enables the patient to interact with the video game. In one of them the character walks in different worlds catching objects, and in the other the character dodges meteorites from a spacecraft.

Did you consider working with Microsoft’s Kinect game controller, that registers and responds to motion in the absence of physical contact?

NWe needed a sensor to capture the patient’s motion and we didn’t have Kinect in our work area. We chose inexpensive sensors that could be adapted to the work at hand, but we don’t rule out using tools like this one in the future.

In addition to sensors, your technology also uses electrodes.

The electrodes capture the signals of the impulses from the muscles, detecting whether the patient is moving or not. In this way the physical therapist can check the child’s progress and at the end of the week determine whether he or she has improved or not.

Are you planning to market the idea?

We want to set up a company, but first we need to improve the motion detection system and develop smaller and more compact sensors. We also need to develop a methodology to quantify the progress of patients by identifying motion patterns. The ultimate goal is to change the way in which rehabilitation therapies are carried out in Colombia and in neighboring countries.

What role do you think new technologies will play in health care?

These technologies help change medical care, so the patients feel good with their therapy. They also improve the quality of the service provided by specialists, because using devices like Google Glass several physicians can take part in an operation without being physically present, which is a major advance for medicine.

The kick-off by an exoskeleton controlled mentally by a patient generated a great deal of controversy during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Do you think that it’s feasible to apply a similar system to rehabilitation?

I think it’s possible and it’s not the first time something like that is done. In my opinion it’s a show related to the World Cup. From what I’ve read, some researchers like José Luis Pons, a pioneer in the development of this kind of neuroprotheses, consider that there’s nothing innovative about it.

How important was it for you to win the MIT Technology Review Innovators Under 35 award?

It was an unexpected award, and very important for the work I carry out, because thanks to it I was selected ahead of other candidates for the master’s program I’m now taking in Brazil.

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