Scientists have just discovered that mobile gaming can determine whether a patient is suffering from alcohol-related problems much more easily and accurately than existing methods such as written tests and EEG tests that detect electrical activity in the brain by attaching small metal electrodes to the scalp.
And they say the games could be used to screen for a whole range of conditions relating to a person’s ‘cognitive functioning’ such as whether they may be developing dementia or to see if a prescribed drug is interfering with the working of the brain.
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It could also be used to determine whether a knock to the head in boxing, rugby or other contact sport is causing problems.
“We see these games as an unmined source of really valuable tools for drawing out valuable information about people’s cognitive development and impairment,” said Luke Dickens, of University College London.
“Apps are fun and interesting because they challenge certain cognitive functions. They challenge our ability to reason ahead or to respond quickly to stimuli and these are the sorts of things that diagnostic tests for neurological impairment are seeking to find,” he said.
In the same way that existing drugs can be repurposed for new conditions so the gaming app diagnostic tool the researchers have just developed for alcohol dependency could potentially be adapted for other cognitive conditions, Dr Dickens said.
“The next thing I am interested in is to explore how we can monitor the engagement of people with dementia,” add Kent University’s Jim Ang, who also worked on the study.
In the alcohol-dependency tests, the mobile games were able to pinpoint both those who were alcohol dependent – and those who were not – with 95 per cent accuracy.
This is much more accurate than written tests, which can identify those who with alcohol dependency between 88 and 94 per cent of the time – and those who don’t, between 58 and 81 per cent of the time.
One of the reasons these games are so accurate is that they can evaluate factors such as reaction time and hand movement control while the player is absorbed in something they enjoy – and can take key measurements without them being conscious of it.
By contrast a written test is generally no fun, while the patient may lie or not simply accurately remember key information, such as how often they need a drink in the morning.
The game-based analysis also has the benefit that patients can be regularly tested without them getting to know the drill – unlike with the written tests where there are limited variations.
Once a person has been diagnosed with alcohol dependency they can then be treated on the health service.
The alcohol-dependency research is published in the journal Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies
How it works
The researchers took three popular mobile games – Tetris, Fruit Ninja and Unblock Puzzle – and wove in software to track every touch, reaction time and device motion from motion sensors on the phone.
There analysed the functioning of the player’s brains in three ways.
-Performance: This analysed factors such as reaction time to events on screen, how quickly they accumulated points and what mistakes they made.
-Touch-related features: These measured how players touched the screen, how fast their touch movement are and how ‘straight-lined’ they are. And it recorded where they touched the screen when they first begin a swipe.
-Motion-sensor-related features: Players are asked to hold the device in one hand and use their other hand to swipe. The mobile device’s accelerometer means the movement of the phone can pick up characteristic movements that might indicate particular cognitive impairment. That’s because some cognitive impairments are reflected in physiological movements.