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Computer Game May Screen for Dementia

Solitaire-Like Computer Card Game Fares Well in Early Tests
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 19, 2006 -- A computer card game may help identify older adults with mild cognitive impairment.

So say Holly Jimison, PhD, and Misha Pavel, PhD, of Oregon Health & Science University. Jimison is an associate professor in the medical informatics and clinical epidemiology department. Pavel is a professor of biomedical engineering.

Jimison and Pavel added a monitoring program to a solitaire-like computer card game called FreeCell. The researchers studied nine older adults (average age: 80 years) who had used computers before and had been frequently playing FreeCell for three weeks.

The results were presented at the 10th International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders, which is being held this week in Madrid, Spain.

Game On

First, Jimison and Pavel gave the elders a battery of mental skills tests. Those tests identified mild cognitive impairment in three seniors.

Next, the researchers asked the participants to play several games of FreeCell. The monitoring program showed how effectively participants played.

"It requires significant planning to play well, and planning is one measure that neuropsychologists attempt to test in clinical situations," Jimison says, in an Oregon Health & Science University news release.

Jimison and Pavel made the game fairly challenging. "We're trying to keep difficulty at a level that keeps them motivated," Jimison says. "We want to challenge them to the point where they just start having trouble. We don't want it to be too easy or too hard."

Cognitive Clues

The researchers found that the monitoring program correctly identified the players with mild cognitive impairment. They also noticed that players with mild cognitive impairment were more inconsistent in their performance from game to game.

The study was small and brief, and it didn't include any computer novices. But Jimison and Pavel see potential in the computer game.

"Our early results show that we have a promising technique for monitoring indicators of cognitive performance and detecting mild cognitive impairment," write the researchers. They plan to test other computer games as ways to check a variety of thinking and memory functions, according to a news release from the Alzheimer's Association, which is presenting the conference in Spain.

Jimison and Pavel are also employees of Spry Learning Co., a company that may have a commercial interest in the results of this research, according to an Oregon Health & Science University news release.

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