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Digital Economy & Society

Rehabilitation Gaming System: Healing the Brain with Interactive Virtual Reality Systems

Researchers discover a new approach towards neurorehabilitation through the combination of art and science, stubbornness, perseverance, teamwork and Future and Emerging Technologies.

This is a guest blog post written by the RGS project coordinator, Prof Paul Verschure

In May 2002, the exhibition project Ada: Intelligent Space opened its doors at the Swiss national exhibition Expo.02. As project leader of this initiative I had managed a team of about 25 scientists and technicians over a period of about 3 years to turn an idea on an interactive neurally controlled sentient space into a turnkey application. The basic idea was derived from the, so called, RoBoser project where a robot controlled by a system level model of the brain, called Distributed Adaptive Control (DAC), composed music in interaction with its environment.

RoBoser was developed in 1998 together with the Brazilian composer and mathematician Jonatas Manzolli. The Expo organization invited us to submit a proposal, and the notion seemed obvious: if an interacting robot could compose music, why not have a whole space compose a complex audio-visual composition in interaction with its visitors,  telling a story on the future confluence of biology, technology and humanity?

The idea was a hard sell to the institution where I was working, for a number of reasons:some rather political, others more fundamental such as the tendency of scientists to look at phenomena in terms of a fragmented set of atomic elements rather than a connected system, or the belief thata general audience, so the cliché goes, would not understand the results anyway. We can see these negative attitudes as an expression of what Ortega y Gasset  has dubbed the barbarism of specialization.

Anyway, despite an extremely tortuous organizational trajectory and tribal skirmishes, almost magically and based on a prolonged and dedicated effort of the research team and support from its sponsors, Ada saw the light of day on May 15, 2002 and over a period of 5 months over 500,000 people visited this unique and unprecedented synthetic organism. The impact of this autonomous sentient space on its visitors gave rise to what now has become the Rehabilitation Gaming System, which makes possible the functional reorganization of the brain area affected by a stroke. RGS assists in restoring function after stroke by optimizing plasticity and learning.

RGS has developed as a prototypical example of a FET project: visionary, disruptive, multi-disciplinary, high-risk and science based. It has received indirect support via the FET PRESENCCIA (FP6) and CEEDs(FP7) projects and direct support via the AAL instrument.

RGS was born from combining the idea of interactive media, in particular virtual reality, for neurorehabilitation with the Distributed Adaptive Control theory of mind and brain and its derived principles that range from the key role of sensori-motor contingencies in organizing cognition and action to the importance of goal-oriented and error-driven intervention.

RGS has advanced over the last 12 years via an extensive experimental agenda realized with dedicated partners in Barcelona. In order to support these experiments we have installed RGS therapy stations in associated hospitals, which are in continuous use. As a result, RGS has built up an unprecedented empirical track record, having been tested in a wide range of conditions on over 500 patients at the acute and chronic stages of stroke, including in settings at home. Building on these results, together with our clinical partners, we are now validating the generalization of RGS to other neuropathologies such as Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord lesions. The initial analysis looks very encouraging.

Many of the users in our experiments have asked to be able to continue the RGS therapy. This demand, combined, with clinical results that show that RGS is more effective than any other intervention available today, led to the creation of a spin-off company Eodyne.com together with the University Pompeu Fabra and the Catalan Institute of Advanced Studies. Eodyne’s goal is to make RGS available to as many people as possible for a minimum cost.

RGS is successful because of its inclusive science-based and technology oriented multi-disciplinarity that sees societal impact as the objective of science. It was born in the interaction between science and art that started with RoBoser and Ada and has continued with Re(per)curso, the Brain Orchestra and many more installations and exhibitions build by SPECS. In addition, RGS sets an example for the development and deployment of advanced neurorehabilitation technologies: First, ground it on solid science; second, perform the clinical studies; third, introduce it into society.

I emphasize this structure because the norm is rather to spin a nice story to investors without much of a scientific and/or clinical grounding, a reprise of the bubble economy of the “new new thing” model of innovation. This might work on the very short term for those at the receiving end of the money stream but as scientists it is our duty to have specific societal impact not to fool the public and our sponsors with promises of the elixir of life.

Rather, we can envision a form of deductive medicine where scientific theories find validation in the clinic and the clinic in turn provides key insights in advancing our theories of mind and brain. DAC has through RGS closed this validation loop showing that a virtuous cycle between basic and applied research can be created and above all science can deliver on its promise to contribute to the creation of a dignified and inclusive society. RGS is only the beginning.

RGS was recently featured on the TV-programme Futuris. You can watch the 4 minute piece online, on their website.

Get in touch with me @PaulVerschure or via @RehabRGS.

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Published in DSM blog