Video game to help muscle rehabilitation


Space Invaders, the classic "shoot 'em up" arcade game has been dusted off for use as a treatment for muscle injuries. Mr Puneet Sharma, who completed his degree in computer engineering in the University of Limerick (UL) earlier this year, won the Siemens Young Engineer of the Year award for his final-year project on a system which links repetitive muscular exercises with the playing of video games.

He has called the system, EMGamer. The EMG stands for electromyography, the recording of electrical activity in muscles. When performing an exercise as part of a rehabilitative programme, the patient must reach an EMG threshold if the "fire" function is to work. If this isn't achieved, the rapidly descending aliens invade and it's game over.

"The electricity in the muscle controls the feedback of the operation. The innovation is that it uses EMG-based bio-feedback to control the computer-based game," Mr Sharma explained.

The system, which runs on a standard PC or laptop, can be applied to the two basic forms of muscle rehabilitation, he said. One relates to neuro-muscular exercises where, for example, somebody with a cerebral palsy condition might neurologically learn the motion of lifting a cup from a table and drinking from it.

The other form is muscle strength rehabilitation which involves a series of repetitive exercises to repair muscle tissue, damaged perhaps as a result of a sports injury.

"Typically a physiotherapist prescribes repetitive exercises, perhaps with weights, performed in 20- to 30-minute periods four times a week. The problem with this approach is that since it is so repetitive, it becomes extremely boring for patients. As a result, they constantly perform at sub-optimal levels of adherence to the programme."

He was assigned the rudiments of the project after entering fourth year under the supervision of Dr Gerard Lyons, a UL lecturer in electronic engineering. Clinical trials were conducted at Abbey Physiotherapy Clinic under the direction of Ms Annette Shanahan.

The project had been attempted previously and he became interested in it from the start because of its links with medicine and its "real value", he said. "The initial project was to expand upon the project that was done incompletely and build on it. I disagreed with the design. It would not have worked in my opinion. I went about it in a different way and, thankfully, that worked."

Although there are EMG-based bio-feedback systems already on the market, they are expensive, complicated and crude, he said. "It is very hard for the user to use them. They are only available in some physiotherapy clinics and the physiotherapist has to be there all the time."

His design has three components: an electrode detector that picks up the EMG signal in the muscle; a processor which analyses the electricity signal; and software which triggers the computer game function. "The software in the PC takes the information in and allows you to control the game based on your muscle contraction."

EMGamer can be calibrated to the specific muscle it is treating. After carrying out a normal contraction on the muscle, an appropriate contraction threshold is set. "You must as a subject contract above the threshold in order to control the game. Your motivation in this whole project is to play the game because it is so addictive."

The son of Indian parents, Mr Sharma grew up in Ennis, and became fascinated with computers while at Rice College secondary school. Since completing his studies at UL, he has taken up a position with Cypress Semi-Conductors in Cork and will shortly move with that company to Silicon Valley, California.

He hopes to get a patent on EMGamer and further develop it. The next stage in the project is to analyse the EMG signal further to provide physiological information for the physiotherapist, such as fatigue levels.

EMGamer has particular applications for children who would otherwise not have the discipline to complete a boring exercise regime. "If the kid is only four years old, you can download a game to suit him or her," he said.

The system, however, only works with relatively simple video games where the exercise is connected to one vital game function. So Super Mario is also set for a comeback.