Video Games Are Helping to Fight Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's is a terrifying disease that progressively causes dementia and memory loss, especially in the elderly. There is no cure, but an unlikely candidate is being enlisted in the fight: video games.

In 2010 the East Carolina University Psychophysiology Lab began performing studies on the effects of casual games on the cognitive abilities of people when the games are played consistently over time. The titles used were Bejewelled, Peggle and Bookworm Adventures, provided by the maker PopCap Games, which underwrote the study. All 59 of the subjects chosen for the study met the criteria for clinical depression, and their depression symptoms were tested at the start of the program in August and after the finish in November.

There was an average decline in symptoms in 57 percent of players in the experimental group and a whopping 65 percent increase in overall mood. The results also showed remarkable increases in cognitive response time and executive function.

"The initial results of the study are very intriguing, in that they suggest that the 'active participation' required while playing a casual video game like Bejeweled provides an opportunity for mental exercise that more passive activities, like watching television, do not," explained the program's director, Dr. Carmen Russoniello, to 1Up. "Future applications could include prescriptive applications using casual videogames to potentially stave off Alzheimer's disease and other dementia-type disorders."

Aside from the general, practical effects of gaming on people suffering from mental illness, there has been a marked push into using games to specifically treat Alzheimer's and dementia. Russoniello remarked in the study that because mobile games were cheap and easily accessible, they could form a possible prescribed course of action with great reach. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, has been taking it even further, though, with custom-made games designed to target dementia.

He partnered with Matt Omernick, a game designer at LucasArts, to develop a titled called NeuroRacer. It was a simple driving game that made players drive a curvy highway while also obeying pop-up road signs. It adapted to your skill level in real time, instantly becoming harder as you got better at it.

Gazzaley studied the effects of the game and saw that while players older than 60 handled the game poorly at first, after six months they were scoring as high in cognitive function and memory retention as 20-year-olds in the control group who weren't playing the game. Follow-up testing six months later showed that the seniors maintained their increased mental ability after the study.

The success of NeuroRacer landed Gazzaley on the cover of Nature and paved the way for Project EVO. Partnering with Eric Elenko and Eddie Martucci, Gazzaley and Omernick founded Akili Interactive Labs. The start-up licensed NeuroRacer's algorithms to create a similar game about an alien on a raft you must guide through a river full of hazards. Big Pharma juggernauts Pfizer and Shire have already signed deals with Akili to forward the game as a course of treatment, and Project EVO is currently navigating through FDA clinical trials, seeking to become a prescribed medical device for treatment of ADHD and other diseases. The results of initial trials are due later this year.

Non-compliance with medical treatment is a serious and ongoing problem in mental illness, especially with older people. What better way to combat that than with a treatment that is actively fun to do? Especially when the treatment is as easy and cheap as downloading an app to a tablet.

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A less conventional video game treatment is being developed by Alzheimer's Australia Vic and game developers Opaque Multimedia. They are seeking to address the difficulty in real-world interaction that Alzheimer's patients can have. The disease makes, say, going out for a walk in the forest much more dangerous, so they decided to bring the forest to the patient instead.

Hoping to have the game installed in assisted living facilities all over Australia, the project uses the Unreal engine to allow a player to interact leisurely with a tranquil forest with no chance of getting lost. Their Pozible campaign failed to raise the $90,000 needed to expand the prototype, but people interested in the project can still donate on the website.

Even for people who don't actually have Alzheimer's, video gaming is making a difference in raising the awareness of what it actually means to be afflicted with the disease. Last year White Paper Games released Either One on Steam. It places the player as the agent of a memory recovery company that must reassemble the mind of a 69-year-old woman with dementia. Bit by bit, you have to recover symbolic alien artifacts in order to restore the thread of her life through an increasingly difficult and clandestine series of puzzles.

Less ambitious but perhaps even more jarring is the simple Newground game Alz. It takes just minutes to complete and is impossible to lose, but it sums up the sad progress of Alzheimer's perfectly in that short run time. Your avatar wanders a glitching landscape, lost in a mix of recognition and confusion. Its final seconds serve as a punch in the gut, especially for anyone who has watched a loved one go through the disease.

I lost my father-in-law last year to Alzheimer's and my grandfather not long before that. It was my grandfather who first introduced me to PC gaming as I sat in his lap and played Amazon. (For the fascinating history of Amazon, click here.) I like to think the fact that an aspect of our relationship might one day keep my own grandchildren from having to watch me as I watched him weaken from Alzheimer's would make him very happy indeed.

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