According to new research, games like Tetris and Candy Crush might help medical professionals identify subtle changes in motor skills, which is one of the earliest signs of diseases like dementia.

By Zee Krstic
September 13, 2019
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Doctors may soon think twice about the role mobile games play in the lives of their patients. According to a new study by a team of researchers at the University of Kent in England, puzzle-like games such as Tetris may provide doctors with an opportunity to measure a person's cognitive skills as they age. By simply taking a look at how someone plays Tetris, for example, healthcare professionals could be able to subtly detect warning signs of serious cognitive decline, including Alzheimer's and dementia. 

How can doctors determine your brain function by watching you play Tetris? In this experiment, which was presented to academics this week at the 2019 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing, researchers asked a group of otherwise healthy adults to play a few rounds of Tetris as well as other games like Candy Crush Saga and Fruit Ninja. The phones themselves had sensors that collected data on patterns of tapping, swiping, and rotational gestures made by participants during the game—then, researchers compared that cognitive data to other information generated by a paper exam. The two points of data allowed researchers to paint a full picture of each person's "visuo-spatial and visual search tasks" and showcased their depth of memory and attention span, according to a University of Kent press release.

Tim Robberts / Getty Images

Jim Ang, Ph.D., a lead researcher on the study, says that this data provides solid insight into someone's overall mental health status; but the team also found that how each person chose to play these games correlated with their mental health status. Things like reaction speed, how long each round lasted, and how attentive each player was was recorded to be during the game factors into their brain health. Ang says that game-based assessments could help doctors catch changes in motor abilities over time, which is an early warning sign that someone might be suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, stroke, traumatic brain injury, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"We are very encouraged by the results of our study and have since collected data from patients who showed signs of brain damage," Ang says in the press release. "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." Since more than 5 million Americans currently suffer from some form of Alzheimer's disease, healthcare professionals are routinely searching for ways to preemptively address symptoms—and puzzle games could soon be the next frontier in doing so.

Comments (1)

Anonymous
December 1, 2019
Its very interesting that today's technology can be used to assist in medical diagnoses. But especially as we are required to find new doctors when our insurance changes, etc., not all doctors have "the full picture" of their patients. I am 71, have been wearing glasses since I was 4, and have severe amblyopia, far sightedness, astigmatism and now cataracts. I've never been able to "focus on demand" as quickly as I'd like, though I read voraciously, knit, and play digital games on my tablet. Games like Tetris have always been very difficult for me to follow, since speed as well as decision making is key to success. I'm afraid I might have been diagnosed with dementia long ago if this screening were used. I've had FIVE primary care doctors in the past 10 years and I don't recall one of them asking for my vision acuity!