The researchers engaged the festival visitors with the interactive video game Muscle Switch, where the player grips a handheld dynamometer to power an astronaut in space.
Theodora Markati, one of the researchers at the stall, said: “The purpose of this game is to squeeze as much as you can a dynamometer to help an astronaut who is trapped inside a muscle cell to jump, collect the pieces of his spaceship and escape.”
Prof. Carlo Rinaldi, who led the development of Muscle Switch commented:
The activity was a great success, with many wanting to try the video game more than once! We made several interesting observations, including that most kids underestimate their maximum strength. Some were very curious about the mechanisms of transcriptional regulation of muscle strength, which is among the things we do in the lab. We talked about diseases that make you weak and what we can do to treat these conditions.
The idea of Muscle Switch is that a tool for clinical examination can turn into a powerful tool of raising awareness.
The video game interface of the activity appealed to children and adults, challenging them to “squeeze” more and more kilos.
Each user is invited to play the game twice. The first time, players are encouraged to use their maximum strength, while the second time they use varied strength to understand how biology, muscle damage and repair play a part in muscle strength.
“The running idea behind the game is that feeling the difference between the baseline kilos and the higher kilos children end up squeezing, helps them get in the shoes of someone with a neuromuscular disease,” said Theodora Markati.
The group was met with a lot of enthusiasm from the public and had the chance to explain to children what neuromuscular diseases are and how they can occur.
“I realised that many children were sad to find out about the diseases but also very happy to learn that within the department of paediatrics we are doing something to treat them,” said Theodora.
The Rinaldi research group seeks to investigate how disease genes affect the homeostasis of the motor unit and the causes of harm to motor neuerons and muscle.
The lab uses a variety of approaches, such as 3D stem cell modelling, advanced microscopy, and integrated genomic characterisation, to study neuromuscular diseases.
The activity was featured in the Oxford Science and Ideas Festival, which includes more than a 100 different events and activities across a range of disciplines.