Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system characterized by muscle weakness, causing coordination and balance problems. But a new study suggests a balance board accessory for the Nintendo Wii could help people with the disease reduce their risk of accidental falls.

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Researchers say they observed changes in brain areas of MS patients that coincided with improvements in balance, after participants engaged in a 12-week visual feedback training program with a Wii Balance Board System.

The study, published in the journal Radiology, revealed that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans in the brains of participants with multiple sclerosis (MS) who used the video game balance board showed “favorable” changes in brain connections linked to balance and movement.

People with MS have disrupted communication between the brain and other parts of the body, as the immune system incorrectly attacks healthy tissue in the central nervous system. Symptoms can range from benign to completely disabling, but initial symptoms typically consist of blurred or double vision, red-green color distortion or blindness in one eye.

The majority of MS patients have muscle weakness and difficulty with coordination and balance, which can be severe enough to affect walking, standing, and could even result in partial or complete paralysis.

Though many patients undergo physical rehabilitation to preserve their balance, the researchers from this latest study say the Wii Balance Board System – which is about the size and shape of a bathroom scale – provides a promising new tool.

Gamers typically stand on the board and shift their weight from side to side and front to back as they follow the action on the TV screen in games such as slalom skiing. The device has been shown to be effective in MS patients, but until now, the physiological basis for balance improvements has been unknown.

Fast facts about MS
  • Nearly three times as many women as men develop MS
  • Environmental factors – such as low vitamin D and cigarette smoking – have been linked to increased MS risks
  • More than 2.3 million people worldwide are affected by MS.

To conduct their study, the researchers – led by Dr. Luca Prosperini from Sapienza University in Rome, Italy – used an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) on 27 MS patients who participated in Wii balance board-based visual feedback training for 12 weeks.

They explain that DTI is a technique enabling them to analyze the white matter tracts that send signals throughout the brain and body.

After analyzing the MRI scans, the team found that the MS patients exhibited changes in nerve tracts important in movement and balance. What is more, these changes correlated with improvements in balance, as measured by posturography – an assessment technique.

Dr. Prosperini says these changes are likely a manifestation of neural plasticity, the ability of the brain to change and form new connections throughout life. He adds:

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. More specifically, the improvements promoted by the Wii balance board can reduce the risk of accidental falls in patients with MS, thereby reducing the risk of fall-related comorbidities like trauma and fractures.”

Previous research has reported similar plasticity in individuals who play video games, but Dr. Prosperini explains that the mechanisms behind this phenomenon are unknown.

Though the balance and movement improvements in the patients were promising, these changes did not continue after they stopped the training program. The authors say this is most likely because certain structural changes in the brain after an injury need to be constantly maintained.

However, Dr. Prosperini says their research is promising, adding that their “finding should have an important impact on the rehabilitation process of patients, suggesting that they need ongoing exercises to maintain good performance in daily living activities.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that showed how mice with MS were able to regain the ability to walk after therapy involving stem cells.