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Virtual reality games could help young patients­ with cancer treatment

Surveys show that they can ease pain up to 50 per cent

Artificial intelligence expert Alexiei Dingli. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Artificial intelligence expert Alexiei Dingli. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Virtual reality games could be used in hospitals to help children deal with the pain of cancer treatment, artificial intelligence lecturer Alexiei Dingli believes.

International studies have confirmed that virtual reality has a strong effect on pain management. In fact, studies have shown that playing a virtual reality game can help ease pain by up to 50 per cent, Prof. Dingli added.

An agreement between the University of Malta and the Vodafone Malta Foundation to develop the new technology – “adaptive virtual reality” – will be signed next week.

A specialised game will also be created for children to play while they are receiving the treatment. The Vodafone Malta Foundation will also be giving virtual reality headsets to paediatric oncology wards.

Eventually, we hope that the use of virtual reality will be rolled out into all wards at Mater Dei, but anyone outside the hospital will be able to use it

“Eventually, we hope that the use of virtual reality will be rolled out across all wards at Mater Dei, but anyone outside the hospital will be able to use it to help with their pain,” Prof. Dingli said.

A team of five academics will be creating the game, which will also be connected to a smartwatch that will monitor the heart rate of the player.

“When the smartwatch detects a low heart rate, the game will become more exciting for the player. If, on the other hand, the smartwatch detects an abnormally high heart rate, the game will become easier,” Prof. Dingli explained.

The game will help children feel less pain and reduce anxiety and distress while undergoing treatment, experts believe.

Studies have shown that non-painful stimuli, such as video games, distract and “close the gate” to painful stimuli from the brain to the body – a belief known as gate control theory.

“The game can be used by anyone, but we decided to work with children first, since they are usually more open to technology,” the lecturer added.

The €113,000 project will be funded by the Vodafone Malta Foundation and spread out over three years.

“We always look to work with innovative technology that can help vulnerable communities,” corporate affairs senior executive Kim Dalli said.

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