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30 September 2019

How to spot a brain on the wane? Candy Crush could do the trick

A new study has revealed that smartphone games could provide a new tool to help doctors spot early signs of conditions like dementia.

Although spending too much time on your cellphone is often viewed negatively, smartphones have become increasingly useful in the medical field. From doctors trying to flush out fake health news on social media to Facebook posts that are able to reveal a future medical condition before it is diagnosed by a medical professional, technology continues to make great strides when it comes to medical conditions.

Now a study has revealed that popular mobile games could be used to detect early signs of cognitive decline, some of which could indicate the onset of serious conditions such as dementia

Clues about brain health

The study, led by the University of Kent titled "Exploring the Touch and Motion Features in Game-Based Cognitive Assessments", looked at the link between patterns of tap, swipe and rotational gestures during mobile game play and the users' cognitive performance.

The research showed that speed, length and intensity of these motions correlate with brain function. The performance of these gestures reveals key information about players' visual search abilities, their mental flexibility and inhibition of their responses, all of which offer clues about the overall brain health of the individual. 

21 healthy participants were put through standard paper-based cognitive assessment tests, which were followed by ten minute sessions of playing Tetris, Candy Crush Saga and Fruit Ninja over two separate periods, two weeks apart.

These games were chosen because they're easy to learn, engaging for most players and they involve intense interactions using multiple gestures. 

Researchers used sensors built into the mobile phones to collect data and the team showed how users interacted with the games and illustrated a clear link between the participants' touch gestures, taps and swipes, rotational gestures and their level of cognitive performance.

The study showed the participants' ability to perform visuo-spatial and visual search tasks. It also demonstrated their memory, mental flexibility and attention span. 

Traumatic brain injuries

It was concluded that popular mobile games could provide an effective measure of brain function in order to detect changes in motor abilities, commonly seen in patients who had a stroke or traumatic brain injury, or suffer from Alzheimer's Disease, schizophrenia and OCD.

The early detection of signs of cognitive decline is crucial to prevention and effective treatment, as well as identifying individuals who could be at risk of brain disease.

Dr Ang, a senior lecturer in multimedia and digital systems, said, "We are very encouraged by the results of our study and have since collected data from patients who showed signs of brain damage. This additional analysis reinforced the conclusions of our original research.

"We're now working to design an algorithm which can carry out automatic monitoring of individuals' cognitive performance while playing these games."

The study also provided evidence that playing mobile games could have the potential to detect changes in cognitive performance among athletes exposed to traumatic brain injuries, like boxers, rugby players and footballers.

It has proved to be quicker than the traditional paper-based format; makes it easier to carry out regular, repetitive testing; and is more engaging for participants. 

Image credit: iStock

 
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