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Psychologist explores use of games to help Alzheimer's patients

"By 2050 the cost of direct health care in just the U.S. for Alzheimer's is going to be $1 trillion" Dr. John Harrison, Imperial College, London

As the occurrence of Alzheimer's disease continues to grow, and treatment costs grow with it, a British psychologist posited the use of video games to help in treating the disorder, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Speaking at the Games for Health Europe conference in Amsterdam, Dr. John Harrison, a psychologist in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College, London, said that while brain-training games have proven unsuccessful in treating Alzheimer's disease, games designed for Alzheimer's patients may do a better job. Such games have the chance to push back the disease's advance or reduce the rate at which it destroys the brain, and if not, they may at least be useful as a measurement of the effectiveness of other treatments.

Specifically, said Dr. Harrison, games could help in treating five different areas of brain function affected by Alzheimer's. The Wall Street Journal summarized them like this: "executive functioning — the ability to work out a strategy; working memory — the ability to use information and skills you have stored; attention and concentration; episodic memory — the ability to recall an event; and psychomotor skills — how quickly you can respond to events."

Dr. Harrison played a trailer at the conference for a concept of a game that could test a patient's psychomotor skills, although such a game doesn't yet exist. The trailer showed a player setting and then firing traps to ensnare monsters. Dr. Harrison explained that he would provide various parameters, such as an instruction not to catch 10 of the creatures, that would measure cognitve function. "There are a whole host of things we can embed into a games context that will exercise and test efficacy," he said.

Dr. Harrison pointed out that with incidences (and therefore, treatment costs) of Alzheimer's on the rise, anything that can be done to help Alzheimer's patients would be tremendous.

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