TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14  - 
Tess Baird uses the VR headset while Dr. Ben O'Sullivan looks on. 

Virtual Reality isn't just for gamers. A new project between SickKids and Sunnybrook uses VR headsets to ease pre-surgery anxiety. Patients watch immersive video of the surgery process: wheeled down the hallway, getting anaesthesia, waking up. Pre-surgery anxiety has affects that spill over even after surgery.        (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

655635406

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14 - Tess Baird uses the VR headset while Dr. Ben O'Sullivan looks on. Virtual Reality isn't just for gamers. A new project between SickKids and Sunnybrook uses VR headsets to ease pre-surgery anxiety. Patients watch immersive video of the surgery process: wheeled down the hallway, getting anaesthesia, waking up. Pre-surgery anxiety has affects that spill over even after surgery. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Photo by: Carlos Osorio

Carlos Osorio

Gaming and VR Unleash Wave of Digital Therapies for Improved Health

By: Robin Fearon

People suffering from life-changing physical conditions, like losing a limb or paralysis caused by a stroke, often have a long, slow journey to regain function. But advances in digital therapies, using games and virtual reality, can make rehabilitation easier and are encouraging patients to make faster progress.

July 12, 2022

Amputees can suffer from severe phantom limb pain as well as coordination problems caused by losing an arm or leg. To address this, neurotechnology company MindMaze created a virtual reality experience that fools the patient’s brain into thinking their severed limb is still attached, helping them to manage the pain.

The company also develops games using body motion capture cameras and movement sensors to rehabilitate patients and restore movement. Thousands have received MindMaze gaming therapy in clinics around the world. And crucially, VR and games are an injection of fun into what could be an uncomfortable, difficult and tiring process.

Stroke patients struggling to recover movement, fine motor skills, and cognitive function can work their way back to fitness with the help of an animated dolphin character in ‘MindPod’. The game uses an anti-gravity vest that lifts the arm and makes it easier to control the dolphin in its undersea environment, or even do backflips out of the water.

Games like MindPod are also being used to address degenerative brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. The US Department of Defence has funded a trial to see how it can prevent dementia for war veterans with traumatic brain injury.

Serious physical and neurological disorders mean that therapeutic games need to be built on solid foundations. University of California San Francisco (UCSF) video game research showed that games could be used to help older people improve their cognitive control and multitasking skills.

NeuroRacer was a simple 3D racing game developed at the university that showed how, in just hours, games training could reverse certain negative effects of aging, and might also help with disorders like ADHD and depression.

Now it seems the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the uptake of gaming therapies. Remote treatments make more sense when there is already reduced contact with doctors. In June 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration approved its first game-based therapeutic device for children with ADHD, the EndeavorRx, based on the UCSF’s groundbreaking research.

Gaming companies have been looking to develop games for the health and fitness market for more than a decade. Commercial entries, from Kinect and Xbox to Nintendo Ring Fit, show how seriously the video console and gaming industry wants to be involved.

DeepWell Digital Therapeutics has unveiled plans to build on existing games research into ADHD and depression to release its own range. While these games are unlikely to be a replacement for medication or in-person care, they can certainly help fill in gaps in care.

Boston Children’s Hospital certainly takes the digital therapy trend seriously. Clinicians worked with the Harvard Medical School to create the gaming company Mightier and road test its strategies. The result was gaming technology that showed kids how to handle stressful situations and change their behavior.


The hospital now uses gaming in family therapy and mental health sessions, showing doctors’ commitment to digital therapies. And the games industry is happy to follow suit to make gaming for wellness another option for inpatient treatment.

Next Up

Digital Twins are a Virtual Replica of Everything

Imagine a world where every car or plane, every patient, every building, or even entire cities have their own virtual, real-time computerized replica--a digital double.

Neuroprosthetic Sensory Devices are Reconnecting People to the World

Sensory loss has a profound effect on millions of people’s everyday lives. Sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste can all be affected, diminishing their experience of the world. But now, thanks to neuroprosthetic technology we can tap into nerve and brain function, and rewire these lost connections.

23,000-Year-Old Human Footprints Discovered in America

Ancient human footprints found in New Mexico suggest people may have arrived in the Americas 10,000 years before scientists had previously thought.

World's First Malaria Vaccine Offers Hope to Millions

Tens of thousands of lives could be saved each year from sickness and death caused by malaria following the World Health Organization (WHO) approval of a first-ever vaccine. Scientists have recommended the RTS,S vaccine for children in sub-Saharan Africa and other high-risk areas to prevent one of the world’s oldest and deadliest infectious diseases.

Laser Cooked 3D-Printed Meals are the Future of Food

Whatever your tastes are it is highly unlikely that many of you are using 3D printers to create your favorite meals. Still, anyone interested in the future of food can find technologists printing out snacks, from steaks to cakes, at the push of a button. Now laser cooking has arrived and it is adding an entirely new layer of gourmet taste.

Get #Mindblown on National STEM/STEAM Day

Happy National STEM/STEAM Day! Here are fun and easy ways to inspire the next generation of budding innovators.

Emotional Robots: Machines that Recognize Human Feelings

Bridging the gap between simple automation and robots that can empathize and interact with humans naturally is a big challenge, but major progress has been made in the past few years.

Nanodiamond Sparkles as Miracle Material of Future Technology

Invisible to the naked eye and made from one of Earth’s most abundant elements, carbon, the wonder-material nanodiamond is an impressive creation. These tiny particles of diamond measure billionths of a meter in size, but their impact on future science is likely to be colossal.

The COVID-19 Vaccine Race

The development of a vaccine for COVID-19 has been a global all hands on deck initiative since the Coronavirus pandemic took hold of the world in early 2020. Recently two pharmaceutical giants-Pfizer and Moderna- have announced successful ongoing trials. Updated: November 18, 2020

Robots Imitate Life to Create Better Versions of Themselves

Robots have always imitated life. Social androids powered by artificial intelligence have now reached a level where they may be ready to work in shops, airports, and care homes. But an entirely new class of robots is being developed that can grow, evolve, and even reproduce.