CogCubed Is Using Games to Help Diagnose ADHD

Optimized-GroundsKeeperThe human brain is plastic, meaning that experiences can change it. That fact is fascinating to many people; there’s a possibility that they can sharpen their cognitive abilities throughout their lifetime, or that they could even prevent their mind’s decline in old age. It’s why many practice crossword puzzles or complete Sudoku grids, and it’s also why there’s a market for brain health.

But taking a step back, a new gaming company is keeping this in mind, but starting its first project elsewhere. CogCubed is developing games that professionals can use to diagnose mental health disorders. The company recently published a white paper detailing the results of a clinical trial, which looked at a game’s effectiveness at diagnosing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

How to play Groundskeeper

The game isn’t only novel in what it’s trying to do, but also in how it’s played. CogCubed created a software program to run on another startup’s game system called Sifteo Cubes. These tiny digital blocks created by Sifteo incorporate Lego-, iPhone- and Nintendo-like game elements. The cubes have sensors on all four sides and can talk to each other wirelessly. For example, a demo video shows how someone can use one cube, displaying a ketchup bottle on an LED screen, to shake a condiment onto another cube, displaying a burger.

CogCubed’s game works similarly, but the main objective is to use one cube, shaped like a mallet, to whack gophers that pop up on the other cubes. “That tangible nature allows us to target a lot more brain areas than you would by just looking at a screen and using a mouse.” CogCubed CEO Kurt Roots said.

His team’s goal was to use the Groundskeeper game to examine users’ reactions to visual and auditory stimuli. Their analysis was done not with observation but with data. The cubes represent what’s called a tangible user interface, and the benefit to researchers working with such a game system is the ability it gives them to collect data. In this case, data points were collected every tenth of a second.

The clinical trial and results

Working with the University of Minnesota, CogCubed conducted a controlled clinical trial with 52 children and teens. Half had ADHD, and half did not. The participants were ages six to 17, a specific age range traditionally used when studying and treating children and adolescents with ADHD.

“The really high functioning kids with ADHD who only have minor symptoms, we were still able to pick them up because we were really stretching their capabilities,” said Monika Heller, MD, adjunct professor of child/adolescent psychiatry at the University of Minnesota. Heller is also CogCubed’s chief medical officer.

Detecting these nuances in game playing behavior involved looking at more than 70 different variables related to movement, reaction, and response patterns. Using algorithms, the team classified participants as not having ADHD, having predominantly inattentive ADHD or having a type of ADHD called combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive. The clinical trial found that the game as a diagnostic tool correctly worked 78% of the time when diagnosing inattention, and 75% of the time when diagnosing combined.

Next up 

Like other machine learning algorithms, the ones used here will get better with more data. The idea is to make the system accurate enough so that it can be used as a diagnostic tool in pediatrician’s offices as well as in schools. This could make a world of difference for Heller.

“The first three months, frequently I’m playing catch up. Meaning I’m either pulling them off of the medication and seeing how they look at baseline,” she said, “or I’m trying to catch up with everything that’s been occurring that has not been addressed because it wasn’t picked up in the school or adequately diagnosed when they were very young.”

The idea is to make information captured during the CogCubed screening available to those responsible for the child’s care and education. All of the data is stored in a cloud server, and the company says it will be possible to grant access to parents, teachers and doctors.

Next CogCubed will be focusing on that intriguing neuroplastic characteristic of the brain.  Groundskeeper Training is version two of CogCubed’s first game. Its goal is to strengthen the connections between synapses in the brain in order to improve a user’s working memory. That game, too, will be tested in a clinical trial.

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