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RetroBrain Memore © SoulPicture

Fun, not suffering, for patients in Hamburg's clinics

Hamburg's RetroBrain start-up developing fun video games to treat dementia

The large flat screen monitor shows a postman on a bike. An elderly man, who is standing at a distance from the monitor, starts walking on the spot. The bike on the screen starts moving and the faster the man walks, the faster the bicycle becomes. As soon as he comes to a bend in the road, the man leans to the side and the bicycle continues to follow the road. If a letterbox appears on either side of the street, a sweeping side movement of the hand causes a letter to be inserted. At the end of the exercise, a therapist told the clearly delighted patient: “You are number five in our ranking.” The patient is showing the first signs of dementia and the video game is part of personal therapy.

Therapeutic video games

The neurological centre in Segeberger Clinics is the scene of the action. Patients suffering from motoric disorders are treated there. The causes include dementia, stroke or other disorders that affect the ability to move arms and legs in a co-ordinated manner. The on-screen application is called Memore and is actually a fun video game for sharpening cognitive skills, training the musculoskeletal system and rebuilding lost motoric skills. Manouchehr Shamsrizi, founder of the Hamburg- based Retrobrain start-up, is the man behind the game. The company develops video games for therapeutic applications.

Patients do not have to be wired to any electrodes and can play Memore without wearing special glasses. A patient simply positions themself at a distance from the monitor and controls the game with physical movements. The technical structure required for this is very simple. An ordinary flat screen monitor is connected to the MemoreBox and the system is ready to go. The box contains a special camera sensor that records the patient’s movements and integrates them into the game.

Successful, fun therapy

“Movement is fun,” says Shamsrizi, explaining one of Memore’s advantages: “There is strong evidence that having fun increases the release of dopamine in the brain and has a positive impact on those affected.” Dopamine is considered a suitable means of countering impending dementia. Therapists at the Segeberger Clinics are aware of this and use Memore as a complementary therapy for dementia prevention.

Retirement homes and other elderly care facilities are also showing more interest in Memore with the aim of helping old people stay mentally and physically fit. Residents perceive Memore’s different game scenarios less as therapy and rather as fun. They can be played without a therapist and patients can use them several times daily.

Game designers meet medical professionals

Founded as a a spin-off at Berlin’s Humboldt University, RetroBrain moved to Hamburg when it received funding from the InnoRampUp programme in the Hanseatic city. Shamsrizi’s team includes business administrators, physicians, game designers and IT experts who pool knowledge from diverse disciplines and tap into the fun factor of video games for entirely new applications.

The focus on medical technology and research in the Hamburg Metropolitan Region offers ideal conditions for such an approach. Thus, first tests of the therapeutic video game in north Germany were by no means coincidental. Apart from the Heilig Geist Hospital in Hamburg, the Segeberger Clinics are among the first to have integrated the technique in their regular therapeutic offers.

Technically speaking, Memore is based on the proven Microsoft solution Kinect. The sensor can detect even small hand movements over a distance of four meters. The highly sensitive, but cost-effective technology can be used for a variety of medically effective measures. Crucially, the device captures patient-related usage and history data, which is evaluated to document the progress of therapy and to amend it, should the need arise.

Heading for new applications

Developers at RetroBrain are already thinking ahead and working on integrating the therapy solution in a virtual reality environment. However, considerable problems are still occurring especially when used by older people. “But we hope for progress, for instance, and to develop new services for bedridden patients,” said Shamsrizi in an interview. The present focus is mainly on expanding therapy options using Memore. RetroBrain works closely with medical facilities in the region, which are increasingly using Memore for the various phases of neurorehabilitation and pain therapy.

Treating Parkinson’s patients

The playful-looking combination of a large flat screen and the inconspicuous MemoreBox are increasingly used to treat Parkinson’s patients in the neurological centre in Bad Segeberg. In 2017, the German Parkinson Association awarded the clinic the title of “Parkinson Special Hospital”.

Prof. Dr. med. Björn Hauptmann, winner of the Hilde Ulrichs Foundation’s award for Parkinson’s Research and co-founder of the Parkinson Society, is the director of the Neurological Center at Segeberger Clinics. Commenting on Memore, he noted: “The MemoreBox allows us the therapeutic option of recording and correcting movements and to encourage patients to exercise more, even outside therapy sessions. In addition, the process creates a collaborative experience with lots of fun for the participants. “

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