Games in Science and Technology

FWD News: Further Medical Innovations Through Gaming Technology

A CT ScannerVideo game technologies and the concepts they bring forward continue to take the medical field by storm, by strengthening both research and treatment. One example comes from a team of Austrian researchers that has developed an interactive motion-capture game to assist patients with physical therapy.

Specialists from the Vienna University of Technology’s Institute of Software Technology and Interactive Systems worked with Danish software firm Serious Games Interactive to develop a physical therapy game that works in conjunction with a motion-capture system and “data suit” made of small reflecting balls—sensed by an eight-point infrared camera system. The system is compared to the yoga portion of Ubisoft's upcoming Kinect title Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, which achieves similar goals. Read More...

The system takes patients through stretches and other activities designed to relax targeted muscle groups. The game and suit are meant to be used in addition to traditional rehabilitation tools, offering detailed biofeedback to users, as well as therapists who can adapt the control parameters of the software to patients individually and analyse their movements.

Patients muscle tension is monitored regularly so that when they succeed in relaxing the relevant muscle groups, the difficulty level of the game drops. Such relaxation is an important to therapeutic process for patients suffering chronic pain. The research team reports that initial trials have been successful, with a copy of the system being destined for use in a Netherlands rehabilitation centre starting this fall.

Gaming technology is also the inspiration behind a new device that promises to help patients living with digestive and breathing problems avoid surgery. The device, which works like a video game controller, is an endoscopic ultrasound that navigates inside a patient’s body to uncover tumors or the absence thereof.

“In the past, all those people would go to surgery and they'd look at it under a microscope once that part of the stomach was removed and they'd say 'gosh that was a fatty tumor that didn't even need to be removed,'” said gastroenterologist Dr. Landesman.

By properly identifying growths in the esophagus, stomach, duodenum, and even the colon, the device can prevent unnecessary surgeries and allow early detection of certain cancers that are sometimes diagnosed too late. It can also benefit lung cancer patients by assessing any big blood vessels in the chest.

However, gaming technology is also being used for surgery, such as in the case of doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina. In a procedure called video assisted thoroscopic surgery for the spine, specialists use small handheld controllers, an internal camera and small surgical tools which are inserted into the body. Doctors can view everything on screen, such as where to make cuts or add bone or a metal rod to fix a curve in the spine.

Dr. Barton Sachs even compares the procedure to playing Nintendo. "They [the surgeons] can play video games with their hands down, and they're not watching their hands while they're watching the TV. They might be listening to music or having a conversation with a friend the whole time. All multi-tasking. That's in essence what this surgery is about."

Typical spinal surgery to fix the curvature would require opening up the chest and pushing aside the lungs, ribs and heart. Once complete, it would leave a big scar across the chest. Comparatively, the new method produces minimal scarring. Similar video assisted surgery has also been performed at the University for procedures related to the heart, chest, abs as well as to resolve orthopedic problems.

Lastly, video game graphics cards are serving a new purpose by allowing the reduction of x-rays used in cancer treatment applications. Researchers at the University of California San Diego are using graphic processing units that were originally designed to power 3-D video game graphics to make computer tomography (CT) scans more sensitive, thus requiring a smaller amount of radiation for every use. In some case, these original CT scans have caused new cases of cancer.

"CT dose has become a major concern of the medical community," said Steve Jiang, senior project researcher and associate professor of radiation oncology at the University. “For each year's use of today's scanning technology, the resulting cancers could cause about 14,500 deaths. Our work, when extended from cancer radiotherapy to general diagnostic imaging, may provide a unique solution to solve this problem by reducing the CT dose per scan by a factor of ten or more."

The new CT system increases computational efficiency and make it possible to reconstruct a CT scan in about two minutes, explain the researchers. Compared to the currently used scanning protocol of about 360 projections with four times the radiation, the new processing method results in 36 to 72 times less radiation exposure for patients.

"In my mind, the most interesting and compelling possibilities of this technique are beyond cancer radiotherapy," said Jiang.