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Sep. 26, 2012

Video Games May Ease Treatment for Cancer Patients

by Denise Chow

Click to enlarge images
When you’re sick, playing PlayStation might be the last thing on your mind, but for some patients undergoing cancer treatment, video games may be just what the doctor ordered.

A new study led by Carol Bruggers, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Utah, examined the therapeutic benefits of video games for young patients with cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, autism, asthma and depression.

"When you're in the hospital for a long time, or being treated for an illness like cancer, it can lead to some very serious physical de-conditioning and emotional de-conditioning," Bruggers told Science Friday. "We wanted to look at how to combat the physical and emotional deterioration that can go on, as well as build up resilience."

Bruggers and her colleagues developed a prototype video game that they hope will promote physical activity, and empower young patients in a fun and entertaining way.

The game, which the researchers called the Patient Empowerment Exercise Video Game, is compatible with Sony's PlayStation 3 console. Patients play as a superhero character facing a series of obstacles. For one activity, the superhero has to build a brick wall to stop a tidal wave from flooding the city.

"To build the brick wall, you have to use different arm motions at different times, so you have an incentive to use different muscles," Bruggers explained. "But, as you lay bricks and slather cement, it's sort of a takeoff on building up your immune system with an immune defense wall."

Bruggers and her colleagues detailed their ongoing research in an article published Sept. 19 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Within four to six months, Bruggers expects to begin clinical trials of the specially designed video game with a group of pediatric cancer patients.

The children will be able to play the game in their own homes, as well as at the cancer clinic at the Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City. The researchers will monitor the patients' physical activity and emotional responses to the game. The doctors will also look at the patients' neuropeptide levels to pinpoint protein-like molecules which Bruggers says are associated with self-empowerment and resilience.

Bruggers sees enormous potential within the video game industry to develop new programs similar to the one designed at the University of Utah. Other researchers agree.  

"A lot of research is demonstrating that games are pretty powerful," said Douglas Gentile, a developmental psychologist at Iowa State University who was not involved with Bruggers' study. "People outside the gaming community are looking at the potential for this technology to be used in a number of beneficial ways."

"Anything we do to engage the brain engages our thoughts and engages our physiology, and that then can engage our emotions," Gentile said. "All of these are important in patient recovery."
About Denise Chow

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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