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Grandma had a stroke? Teach her to play Wii

The Wii may help recovering stroke patients improve their motor function, according to research presented at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference 2010.

Wii Baseball: A grandmother who may or may not be enjoying herself pitches to her grandson, who clearly is.

Much has been made of the Wii fitness factor, and how the Wii might actually be good for your health. Basically, those who are generally inactive are generally more active when they opt to play the Wii. This is a no-brainer, although my ability to bowl a near-perfect game without barely flicking my wrist might indicate otherwise.

But new research presented at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference 2010 suggests that playing the virtual reality gaming system might not only burn calories, but also appears to help stroke victims improve their motor function.

The pilot study of 20 stroke survivors (average age 61) were randomized to play a variety of recreational games, from Jenga and cards to Wii Tennis and Wii Cooking Mama, a game that involves movements that mimic cutting, peeling, slicing, and shredding food.

Both groups engaged in eight one-hour sessions over a two-week period approximately two months after suffering a stroke. The study not only found no adverse side effects (i.e. safety hazards) in the Wii group (and one case of nausea in the recreational group), but those who played the Wii demonstrated "significant" motor improvement in speed and extent of recovery.

"This is the first randomized clinical study showing that virtual reality using Wii gaming technology is feasible and safe and is potentially effective in enhancing motor function following a stroke," says Gustavo Saposnik, director of the Stroke Outcomes Research Unit at the Li Ka Shing Institute at St. Michael's Hospital and lead investigator of the study, which took place at the University of Toronto's Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. He adds:

The beauty of virtual reality is that it applies the concept of repetitive tasks, high-intensity tasks, and task-specific activities that activates special neurons (called 'mirror neuron system') involved in mechanisms of cortical reorganization (brain plasticity). Effective rehabilitation calls for applying these principles.

While Saposnik admits that it is too early to say whether Wii is effective and safe enough to be prescribed to stroke patients, his group is already performing a larger study to further analyze the game's potential rehabilitative effects. Of course, in the meantime, plenty of retirees are already getting their game on, as in this CNET video of grannies and grampas bowling in 2008.