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Gaming for Health

‘Healthy’ isn’t an adjective usually associated with video games. Indeed, fitness and nutrition crusaders have long considered them to be the opposite, arguing that they encourage a dangerously sedentary life. But with new products moving video games into decidedly therapeutic realms – including medical treatment, therapy, and even research – this may be about to change.

Some medical gaming (also known as ‘medicinal gaming’) targets specific conditions. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, for example, recently found marked improvement for adult sufferers of amblyopia (also known as “lazy eye”), a condition where an eye, while physiologically normal, has difficulty transmitting signals to the brain through the optic nerve. Treatment options for adults are usually limited. Yet the Berkeley study demonstrated that 40 hours of video game playing by participants resulted in a 30% improvement in visual acuity.  For comparison, other traditional treatments for children typically take 120 hours to see 20% improvement.

Meanwhile, a developer named Brain Plasticity is seeking FDA approval for a game it’s developed that treats symptoms of schizophrenia. This San Francisco-based company seeks to market the game as a drug that can mediate, and even improve, deficits in attention and memory that often accompany the disorder. The FDA has never before approved a video game for medical treatment. Brain Plasticity’s product may well be the first to receive that approval, given that its potential benefits far outweigh its limited risks.

Gamers themselves are becoming involved in medical research. Players of Foldit, an online game, were recently able to determine the structure of the enzyme protease, a problem that has stumped professional researchers for a decade, and in just three weeks. Their target was a monomeric protease enzyme, a cutting agent in the complex molecular tailoring of retroviruses, a family that includes HIV.  The gamers’ discovery is of critical importance to developing drugs to combat these retroviruses.

These new medical games provide great examples of how disparate interests can work together for the greater good.  Sometimes it takes an outsider to solve long-standing problems.  These kinds of partnerships are essential for innovation.

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