Boosting Brain Function May Be as Easy as Playing an iPhone Game


Are you worried about the state of your brain function? There's an app for that.

Thanks to a new app called Akili, which is being promoted as "a new kind of medical product," diagnosing the health of your brain may soon be a matter of putting your gamer skills to the test.

The mobile game targets different aspects of cognitive function, like motor control, impulse control and even reaction time, before feeding data to a physician. It could make diagnosing Alzheimer's, autism and ADHD easier for doctors by providing them with data at a much earlier stage than might otherwise be collected.

The game: In the game, users prescribed to play would be allotted roughly 30 to 45 minutes of gaming time per day, five times a week, before being locked out. The game was designed with the individual in mind, meaning that depending on the mental condition being assessed and the player's level, the game will adapt with slight tweaks to collect the necessary data in each case.

One Akili game, NeuroRacer, created by Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco, was designed to test a player's multitasking skills. Players steer a car down a winding street using the left thumb while paying attention to specific road signs that pop up, then shooting them down using fingers on the right hand.

"This multitasking exercise draws on a mix of cognitive skills just as real life does, such as attention focusing, task-switching and working memory" Gazzaley told Nature.

The way doctors test for cognitive illnesses — short memory tests and holding up flashcards — is due for a digital upgrade. Eddie Martucci, the co-founder and chief operating oficer of Akili, told the Daily Dot that the typical assessments are dull. If it passes through clinical trial, the game could mean nixing the old ways of assessment in favor of something flashier and more engaging. Strong engagement, Martucci explained, is especially important, as it can provide the most accurate data.

Screenshot of Project: EVO/Akili

Long time coming: The tool is seven years in the making, and even though it's still in it's clinical trial stage, the Daily Dot notes that pharmaceutical company Pfizer has already partnered with Akili to bring it to the masses. Autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks is also assisting to test how the game can enhance brain function in children with autism.

But as surprising as it might be, as with any new "drug" on the market, researchers will constantly have to work through the kinks of the game, no matter how innocuous it might seem. Here, that mostly means protecting confidential medical data.

Insurance companies are built on calculating risks, so it would be to their benefit to procure any information that might arm them against having to pay out more money in medical expenses of participants. Akili could help them do that by calculating a person's likelihood of developing a certain mental illness.

h/t Daily Dot