Playing video games is fun, and for certain groups of individuals, video games may even provide health benefits. Findings of a new study, for instance, suggest that patients suffering from multiple sclerosis can improve their balance by using an exercise component of the Nintendo Wii video game.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an inflammatory condition that hampers the ability of the brain to communicate with the body. The disorder is characterized by muscle weakness, blurred vision and problems with balance and coordination.

Luca Prosperini, a neurologist from the Sapienza University in Rome, Italy said that to date, no medication is yet available to preserve the balance of patients with MS. The battery-powered Wii Balance Board System, however, which is used for games that involve moving, snowboarding and dancing, shows promise as a tool that could help boost balance in MS patients.

For a new study published in the journal Radiology on Aug. 26, Prosperini and colleagues wanted to determine the effects of using the Nintendo Wii Balance Board system on MS patients and involved 27 patients that they split into two groups.

The patients in one group did nothing special for three months while those in the other group played with the Wii Balance Board between 30 to 40 minutes per day for five days a week. The researchers then reversed the roles of the patients in the two groups and used an MRI technique known as diffusion tensor imaging to identify any physiological changes in the participants' brains.

Prosperini and colleagues found that the patients regained some balance after their balance training. They also detected positive changes in the patients' brains that they associated with video games. Prosperini pointed out that they observed improvements in the protective sheath around the nerves and this leads to improved conduction of impulses between the brain and the body.

"The results showed that training with the balance board system modified the microstructure of superior cerebellar peduncles," the researchers wrote. "The clinical improvement observed after training might be mediated by enhanced myelination-related processes, suggesting that high-intensity, task-oriented exercises could induce favorable microstructural changes in the brains of patients with multiple sclerosis."

Prosperini said that how video games benefit MS patients may have something to do with neural plasticity, or the brain's ability to adapt and form new connections.

"The most important finding in this study is that a task-oriented and repetitive training aimed at managing a specific symptom is highly effective and induces brain plasticity," Prosperini said.

Although the study found a link between the Wii balance board and changes in the brain that enhance balance, the researchers said that this does not prove a causal relationship.

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