Computer Games Under Study as Non-Drug Therapy for Parkinson’s Disease

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by Alice Melão |

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Researchers from North Wales received a £33,000 (about $43,000) award to study the potential benefits of brain-stimulating computer games in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. 

The scientific study titled, “Early stage feasibility assessment of a non-pharmacological intervention for motor slowing and fatigue in Parkinson’s disease,” will be conducted by researchers from Bangor University’s School of Psychology (BUSP), the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board (BCUHB), and Walton Centre in Liverpool. BCUHB was the source of the funding award.

This research comes as national charity Parkinson’s UK calls for new treatments, including non-drug therapies, to give Parkinson’s patients better control of movement.

The project will record Parkinson’s disease patients’ movement ability before and after playing touch screen “spatial reasoning games” to assess motor function and potential improvements. Researchers plan to include 60 volunteers in the study.

“By having patients perform simple computer based tasks we hope to be able to effectively stimulate specific parts of the brain affected by the disease, which could lead to improved motor function,” Charles Leek, PhD, professor of cognitive neuroscience at BUSP, said in a press release.

Leek said the tests are “incredibly simple” and prompt participants to make judgments about visual spatial relationships. They require the brain to perform rapid calculations “of the dimensions of an object from a different orientation and how it will fit into the space provided.” 

Results from a previous study led by Leek suggest that patients with Parkinson’s disease were able to move faster and more easily initiate movement after a period of “targeted cognitive stimulation” based on computer games.

The new project seeks to confirm these finding in a larger number of participants and will evaluate patients’ long-term clinical responses to the proposed game-based treatment. If the results of this study are promising, the research team plans to move to large-scale clinical trials.

“This project makes a key contribution to helping us better understand the relationship between spatial awareness and movement in Parkinson’s, and how this might be used to develop future therapies,” Aaron Pritchard, from BCUHB’s research and development team, said.

There is no conclusive evidence that brain stimulation via computer programs is an effective non-drug therapy for Parkinson’s. But it is an attractive approach with no side effects in contrast to all other therapies for this condition.

“The idea that a range of basic tasks could deliver clinical benefits is exciting. If successful, the approach may potentially be applied to other conditions involving motor dysfunctions such as stroke and other degenerative diseases,” Leek said.