Monday, January 17, 2011

Game to boost fitness, friendship

Scientists at Holland Bloorview and Queen’s University are developing a virtual-reality game that promotes fitness and social networking for teens with cerebral palsy. I interviewed Dr. Darcy Fehlings (left), co-principal investigator, to learn more about this two-year project.

BLOOM: What is the goal of this research?

Darcy Fehlings: To develop a fun, virtual-reality game that youth with cerebral palsy can use to improve their fitness and interact with other kids through a social-networking platform.

BLOOM: Why is exercise important for teens with cerebral palsy?

Darcy Fehlings: We find that they grow a lot in their teenage years, but their muscle strength doesn’t increase, so they become more tired when moving and that leads to a decrease in fitness. Their body is bigger, so there’s more mass to move, but they don’t have an increase in muscle strength. Our study is focused on kids who are using a walker and who might typically have moved to a wheelchair for longer distances. We want to develop a game that’s fun and keeps their muscles strong so they can continue walking with a walker.

BLOOM: What would the game look like?

Darcy Fehlings: The teen will hold a playstation controller that moves an avatar. They will sit on a recumbent bike in front of a computer or TV at home, and the faster they pedal, the more they control the game. Queen’s University has a lot of expertise in modifying games so that if two students have different fitness levels or physical disabilities, they will be perceived as equal. Their effort will result in the same impact. So no one will be discouraged because they’re playing with someone at a different ability level. Dr. Nicholas Graham is the co-principal investigator at Queen's.

BLOOM: How does the game improve a person’s fitness?

Darcy Fehlings: The bike gives them a cardiovascular workout and builds leg strength. But we’re not only interested in improving physical fitness. We want to engage teens in the social networking aspect of the game. They will participate in the design of the game so it’s something they’re interested in.

BLOOM: Is there anything like this on the market?

Darcy Fehlings: Nothing that’s geared to youth with cerebral palsy and physical mobility issues. We’re taking advantage of the explosion of virtual-reality exercise programs on the market. What’s also unique about our project is the idea that we can use networking to decrease social isolation.

BLOOM: How will the game be developed?

Darcy Fehlings: We have a collaborative team of experts in cerebral palsy, virtual-reality exercise, programmers and our youth with cerebral palsy. They will work together in focus groups to develop the game concept. The virtual platform is already in place so we need to develop the game more from the storyline perspective.

BLOOM: How will the game be tested?

Darcy Fehlings: We will do baseline testing of fitness level, whether they're still able to use their walker, how much they walk each day and social quality of life.

BLOOM: Who is funding the project?

Darcy Fehlings: It’s being funded by NeuroDevNet, a Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence. NeuroDevNet’s focus is to bring together basic scientists and clinicians working with children with cerebral palsy, autism and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Photo by William Suarez


Hey Louise,

I wholeheartedly thank Dr, Fehlings and you for this enganging and novel post, as it truly explains a great deal. For instance, as a child, attending what is presently today,"Holland Bloorview", I was told that my muscles would weaken with age, but until now, I never understood, "Why?".

Nonetheless, in my mid-teens (I had to be 16 or 17), I discovered that I could compliment the many years of physiotherapy with walking around my block and weight training. Hence, I awoke everyday and pushed the boundries. I had even begun dabbling in competitive sports.

However, after phasing out of Holland Bloorview, there was no access to experienced sergeons, dedicated therapists, or ground breaking research. Although I was unaware of it at the time, I would reach my physical peak at the age of tweenty-four. I had eight years of freedom for a lifetime of work. Without medical intervention, I can do no more.

Hence, I will be undergoing two knee surgeries (a left and right rotational osteotomy) with the hopes of being able to walk for the next thirty years. And, if me and my doctor are right, the kids, which Dr. Fehlings is helping now, won't be confined to their wheelchairs.

I would love to sit down with Dr. Fehlings and her work. I haven't been on a bike in years!!!

Thank you,

Matt Kamaratakis