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Mobile Games May Spot Early Signs of Dementia and Cognitive Decline

By Jacqueline Ahearn | September 23rd, 2019

A person’s tapping, swiping and speed of playing games on smartphones may hold information about whether they may be experiencing cognitive decline. Scientists with the University of Kent have recently published a study showing that evaluating patients’ interactions with popular mobile games can help spot early signs of dementia.

The study found that patterns of interaction can predict cognitive function changes in athletes with traumatic brain injury as well as in people with dementia. 

The researchers examined 21 participants with standard paper-based cognitive assessment tests. Participants then played Tetris, Candy Crush Saga and Fruit Ninja for 10 minute sessions over two separate periods, two weeks apart. Sensors in the phone allowed researchers to collect data on how participants used the games, revealing information about their memory and attention span, as well as their visuo-spatial and visual search abilities.

“We’re now working to design an algorithm which can carry out automatic monitoring of individuals’ cognitive performance while playing these games,” Dr. Jim Ang of Kent’s School of Engineering, an author of the study, said in a press release.

Digital Games and Dementia

The researchers believe that mobile games can potentially be integrated into health care regimens for people who are experiencing dementia or who may be at risk. Not only is mobile gaming able to produce faster results than traditional paper based testing, it also makes it easier to carry out regular, repetitive testing that better engages the patient.

Using technology to either identify dementia symptoms or assist in caregiving isn’t new. Scientists have even begun developing specialized digital games that can help identify the more nuanced pre-symptomatic stage of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. One virtual reality game, called Sea Hero Quest, can track people’s spatial navigation abilities, which can often be a marker for preclinical Alzheimer’s disease.

Early detection of cognitive decline is a key factor in treatment and prevention of dementia and other brain health issues. It’s also crucial in identifying people who may be at risk and require preventive care.

While more research is certainly needed, the team of the most recent study has already completed a second round of data collection from a group of people who have suffered brain damage and cognitive decline. They say that data backs up their original conclusion, and they are now beginning to work on translating this into app-based mobile games. They hope these games will allow anyone to test their cognitive health, and will be able to alert individuals when they may be suffering from or at risk for cognitive decline.

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