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University of Missouri

More Than Fun and Games

Dr. Aaron Gray hopes to use video game technology to prevent ACL injuries.

ACL research

Mackenzie Sconce, 17, of Holts Summit, Mo., jumps off a platform while Dr. Aaron Gray measures her biomechanics using a Microsoft Kinect motion sensor. Gray, an MU assistant professor of clinical medicine, hopes to use the video game technology to screen and treat high school girls at high risk for knee injuries. Photo by Rachel Coward.

Dr. Aaron Gray has seen the line of high school girls limp through his clinic with torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs) in their knees.

Betrayed by a mixture of anatomy, hormones and body mechanics, female athletes in soccer and basketball — or any “cutting” sport that requires sudden changes in direction — are four to six times more likely to injure their ACLs than boys in similar sports. A full tear means reconstructive surgery and six to nine months of rehabilitation — at a cost as high as $25,000. And, says Gray, half of them show signs of early arthritis 15 years later.

Gray, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at MU’s School of Medicine, knew the data, but it wasn’t until he was playing Kinect Sports on his Xbox 360 video game system that he realized what he could do about it.

The Xbox uses a motion-sensor device, called the Kinect, to turn players’ bodies into controllers: When Gray scratched his head or wiggled his foot, so did his soccer-playing avatar. It made him wonder whether he could use the Kinect to screen his teenage patients for injury risk.

The hormones and anatomy that put female athletes at greater ACL risk can’t be changed. But poor mechanics in jumping and landing — which studies show to be major predictors of injury — can be improved.

Diagnosing poor mechanics normally requires a $150,000 motion-capture system. But a Microsoft Windows-based Kinect does a simplified version of the same thing for about $250.

Working with Professor Marjorie Skubic in computer engineering and computer science and the Microsoft Application Development Lab in the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Gray is hoping to have a diagnostic program ready to start testing this summer. If it works, he wants to build a Kinect game to improve the strength and body mechanics in girls flagged for injury risk.

Gray says he hopes ultimately to reduce ACL injury rates in girls to rates comparable to boys.