When the Pokémon Go game launched a few years back, there was much talk about the possibility of it creating healthy habits by getting kids moving around in the outdoors. But Pokémon Go seems to have gone the way of most video games—a fun distraction at best, a dangerous habit at worst. But the idea of video games providing health benefits isn’t dead, and in fact, new research demonstrates a potential role for them in stroke rehabilitation.

Specifically, scientists at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine wondered if there was a way to aid rehabilitation by providing feedback through a video game, the idea being that we learn through trial and error, with feedback being the key to learning from the errors.

Much of the motor difficulty stroke patients experience is because their muscles abnormally coactivate so that the action of one muscle works against the action of another. So the researchers developed an 80s-style video game that provides feedback to help these patients learn from their movements.

Closeup of man's face with reflection from computer in his glasses

The concept is simple. If the patient is able to move the cursor in a strictly vertical or horizontal plane, it means they successfully overcame the abnormal coactivation of muscles with that movement. But if their motion moves the cursor diagonally, the muscles are working against one another. As they move the cursor, they get immediate visual feedback and can adjust accordingly.

The scientists studied the effects of using the video game, and the research was published on March 19, 2019, in Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair. Researchers enrolled 32 patients with moderate to severe impairment after stroke. The disabling stroke was at least six months in the past for all patients, with an average time since stroke of six years. The results were exciting and even unexpected. Patients gained an average increase in active elbow extension of 11 degrees. For severely impaired patients such as these, the intervention is ideal because it requires such a small amount of muscle activation. Almost any patient can engage in this activity, even when standard physical therapy is beyond their ability or has concluded, which would be the case after six years. In addition, access to this game therapy at home would allow them to engage in the activity far more often than standard rehabilitation would provide.

The widespread application of this technology is still well into the future, but it promises to offer an entry to rehabilitation that is accessible to the severely impaired, affordable for most budgets, and available in the patient’s own home, overcoming the most common barriers to outpatient rehabilitation.

In this digital age, we worry about the effect of screen time on developing brains. But if we shift our gaze from youth to the elderly or disabled, the possibilities are exciting, with a number of potential benefits from playing video games. It’s exciting to think that improved health may end up being one of those benefits.