A UC Davis researcher has created a video game for children who experience cognitive impairments from genetic disorders with the hope that that it will improve their ability to mentally process information about space and time.
Tony Simon, professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and a member of the MIND Institute faculty, has invented the “neurotherapeutic game” to help improve cognitive abilities in children with genetic disorders such as chromosome 22q11.2 deletion, fragile X, Turner and Williams syndromes, among others.
“Our early findings indicate that we can create fun games that positively impact spatial and temporal attention,” Simon said.
Simon’s work on the video game originated from research into certain genetic disorders that produce cognitive impairments as well as behavioral disturbances. This research demonstrated dysfunctions in “spatiotemporal cognition,” the ability to mentally process information about space and time. Spatiotemporal cognition is required for abilities such as navigating, driving, understanding and learning about numbers and money and telling time.
Simon knew of research demonstrating that people who play action video games show enhanced abilities in their spatiotemporal cognition. He hypothesized that the effect of action game play was in sharpening their resolution of spatial and temporal information, which he compares to the difference between a photo created by a camera with four megapixels and one created by a camera with 20 megapixels. Even using the same computer to view the photos, the image taken with the 20-megapixel camera will be clear, while the other one will be blurry when the viewer zooms in.
“So maybe playing the video games increased the player’s resolution from the equivalent of 20 to 36 megapixel cameras, while the children with impairments may be operating with the equivalent of eight megapixel cameras,” Simon said. “The challenge was to figure out what the active compound in action video games is that could be used to create a ‘digital drug’ for the difficulties this research identified.”
Simon then developed an algorithm that could measure a person’s spatial and temporal resolution. That fueled development of the video game, funded initially with $20,000 in private donations and built in conjunction with Funomena LLC, a San Francisco game development studio.
The prototype, codenamed “Fastbrain,” has players zap the energy out of ghosts that pop out at different distances and intervals around a little “ghostbuster” avatar. The game is designed to adapt its difficulty to each individual player’s ability, based only on their spatial and temporal processing capabilities. In this way, the optimal level of stimulation needed to induce improvement in those abilities is maintained.
The game also is designed so that the level of challenge adapts to the player’s capabilities, making the game fun and engaging. This engagement promotes improvements in neurocognitive processing abilities, which may induce long-term improvements in the player’s higher level functional abilities.
Despite the prototype’s limited functionality, results from preliminary tests are encouraging, Simon said. Initial tests showed that the game’s adaptive algorithms adjusted to maximum difficulty for several expert video game players. By contrast, several children with neurodevelopmental disorders had to play at the easiest levels for a while, but improved noticeably over two to three hours of play, achieved in 5- to 10-minute sessions three to four times per week. Additional pilot studies of children with different genetic disorders, healthy aging adults and those with some forms of brain damage are under way. In each case, spatial and temporal abilities are impaired for different reasons, but Simon believes that evidence-based therapy using different versions of the game may prove to be effective in creating improved abilities that are retained and that apply to real-world functioning.
A more complete assessment of the game’s effectiveness will need to wait for development of a more complete prototype with increased functionality. The technology has a provisional patent from UC Davis with a full patent filed, and has not yet been licensed commercially.