REHAB WITH A REMOTE
Nintendo doesn’t market its Wii video game system for occupational therapy, but it’s become known as Wiihabilitation on the wards of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where soldiers returning from the Middle East and recovering from combat injuries tend to be in the 19-to-25 age range. Wii players get to box, golf, bowl or swing a tennis racket or baseball bat, going through the motions of each sport while waving a wireless controller that directs animated on-screen athletes. The games provide so much distraction that patients tend to overlook the intense discomfort of therapy while gaining endurance, strength, coordination and concentration. Moreover, says Major Matthew St. Laurent, chief of occupational therapy at Walter Reed, two patients can play together, fostering social interaction, which is another essential part of recovery.
To test the effectiveness of video games as a rehabilitation tool, researchers at the University of South Carolina plan to have stroke patients try Wii Fit (which includes step aerobics, running, strength training, yoga, snowboarding, skiing and hula-hooping) and other video games. Then they’ll evaluate the impact on players’ mobility, balance, posture, weight-shifting capabilities and brain activity. One goal of the study is to identify specific ways Wii therapy can be used to aid recovery not just in a clinical setting but also at home.
Animation Research Labs, University of Washington
For all of its enormous power, computer technology hasn’t been able to solve an essential biological mystery—how proteins transform themselves from long, unwieldy strings of molecules into compact shapes so they can fulfill specific functions, such as sending signals through the brain and transporting nutrients through the blood. Even less is known about protein misfolding, implicated as a cause of some 20 diseases, including Alzheimer’s and many forms of cancer.
So, the inventors of Foldit have turned the job over to the shared intelligence of online players. Guided by a cartoon version of a University of Washington scientist who helped develop the game, players confront colorful, snakelike, 3-D images of protein structures and are asked to rotate, twist and wiggle the configurations down to shapes in their most compact form, with the fewest gaps and holes. Points are awarded for successes and subtracted for mistakes as players, competing against one another, try to solve each puzzle.
Since the game’s launch this past May, it has drawn tens of thousands of participants, says Zoran Popovic, head of the game’s development team and a University of Washington associate professor of computer science and engineering. Players practice on the handful of the more than 100,000 human proteins whose structures are understood, then move on to more difficult proteins, for which the optimal folding isn’t known. Though there have been no breakthroughs yet, the hope is that players might come up with structures that could either stabilize the normal folding of a protein or disrupt pathways that lead to misfolding.