Dr. Yana Yunusova
Dr. Yana Yunusova, a Senior Scientist at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, led the work which furthers the idea that computer games can be used to improve speech therapy. (Photo: UHN)

The "Tetris effect" sounds like it was made up by children to manipulate parents into buying videogames. It describes how playing Tetris, the 1980s video game, can train the brain to analyze shapes in relation to each other – with implications for real-life skills used in fields like engineering.

Toronto Rehabilitation Institute Senior Scientist Dr. Yana Yunusova has furthered this idea by showing that computer games can be used to improve speech therapy.

Her research team evaluated the efficacy of a game for people with Parkinson's disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that can impair the movement of muscles such as the lips or tongue, and cause slowed or slurred speech.

The interactive game works like this: the player says a sentence aloud, and the game responds by visually depicting the volume and clarity of the sentence – providing the player with feedback on the progress of their speech.

For example, a dragon breathes fire for longer distances if sentences are spoken louder and clearer. Here is a video explaining how the game works.

To test the effectiveness of the game, the team compared providing feedback traditionally, or by using auditory cues, with feedback provided visually using the game. Study participants' tongue movements were measured with sensors, which revealed that the participants' range of tongue motion and articulation of words improved more than 200 per cent with the visual feedback provided by the game.

"This type of external visual feedback is already being used to treat other effects of Parkinson's disease, such as impairments in walking or writing," explains Dr. Yunusova. "Our study now adds speech rehabilitation to this list, and our future work will examine ways to create a novel treatment paradigm to help those with the disorder communicate better through speech."

This work was supported by Parkinson's Canada; the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; the Centre for Innovation in Information Visualization and Data-Driven Design; and the Toronto Rehab Foundation.


Fire-breathing dragon image from game
The interactive game, which is depicted above, provides visual feedback on speech, tracking progress and creating goals for players. (Photo: Dr. Yunusova)

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