Dr. Maureen Dunn of the Hope College kinesiology faculty is hoping to find area residents with multiple sclerosis who share her interest in exploring the Nintendo Wii Fit's potential for enhancing balance and mobility.
She is seeking participants for a year-long pilot study to determine whether or not the Wii Fit can be an effective home-based rehabilitation tool for individuals with MS. The project, which will begin early in 2011, is being supported through a $32,487 award from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
It's work that hits close to home. Dunn's father was diagnosed with MS while she was in middle school, and she was diagnosed with it herself in 2004.
MS is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system, made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Dunn, who is an associate professor of kinesiology, noted that MS's effects and severity vary from patient to patient, and can range from numbness in limbs, to paralysis to loss of vision. Empathizing very directly with the need, she hopes that her work will help provide a new tool to help at least some of those who have the disease.
"MS is very unpredictable, so people with MS really have no idea what the future holds," she said. "Being able to provide information and potential rehabilitation is motivating, and my own personal experience with the condition will allow me to better understand patients' frustrations."
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society estimates that 400,000 people in the U.S. have MS, and that globally about 2.1 million are afflicted with it. The society notes that the disease is not directly inherited, but that the risk of developing it climbs from one in 750 to one in 40 if a close relative has MS.
Dunn has been examining the Wii Fit's potential in helping different populations improve their balance for a number of years, starting with healthy middle-aged women and also including the elderly. She spent a spring 2010 sabbatical at the University of Calgary in Canada, where she investigated the use of the Wii Fit as a rehabilitation tool for people with MS a laboratory setting.
Having found the laboratory results encouraging, Dunn is interested in seeing if the Wii Fit will serve well as a rehabilitation resource for patients with MS to use on their own. The thought is that it will be more convenient for them to be able to engage in the activities at home at a time of their choosing, and that the entertaining nature of the activities will provide a further encouragement to actually do so. She noted that traditional rehabilitation activities are often considered dull, and that in any case there's not much out there focused on balance.
"If balance is your primary deficit, there's not a mainstream way to go," she said. "So here's an option. It appears to be beneficial. It will probably enhance your compliance because it is fun. You can have your family members do it with you. You also get an actual score saying you're improving, which I think maintains motivation as well."
The pilot study will place participants into one of three groups: one that won't participate in additional rehabilitation activity; one that will participate in traditional rehabilitation exercises; and one that will take Wii Fit units home to use in rehabilitation. The two groups that engage in exercises will be given training on campus before starting the home-based programs.
If it turns out that the Wii Fit is effective in improving balance in the home setting, Dunn is hoping to develop a more in-depth study to further examine how the system might be used.
She will be collaborating on the pilot study with Dr. Kirk Brumels, who is an associate professor of kinesiology and program director of athletic training education, and has used the Wii Fit system in rehabilitation activities for student athletes. Hope students who are interested in kinesiology will also be part of the research team.
Individuals who have MS who are interested in participating in the pilot study may contact Dunn either via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org  or at her office at (616) 395-7695.