Games for seniors are not just for fun

(Above) Dr Joseph Simons is part of the team that created MoCHA, tablet games to detect dementia. (Right) Dr Guan (in blue) leads the team that developed a "brain-computer interface" technology to train users' memory, concentration and other cognitiv
(Above) Dr Guan (in blue) leads the team that developed a "brain-computer interface" technology to train users' memory, concentration and other cognitive functions.ST PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO
(Above) Dr Joseph Simons is part of the team that created MoCHA, tablet games to detect dementia. (Right) Dr Guan (in blue) leads the team that developed a "brain-computer interface" technology to train users' memory, concentration and other cognitiv
(Above) Dr Joseph Simons is part of the team that created MoCHA, tablet games to detect dementia. ST PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO

Technologies by A*Star help detect dementia, run brain tests through games

Singapore researchers have come up with fun and engaging computer games and technology to detect and stave off dementia in the elderly. Two teams from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) have developed technologies that test memory, concentration and other brain functions. These are now being trial-tested on the elderly.

The team from A*Star's Institute of High Performance Computing, led by senior scientist Ilya Farber, has come up with a suite of tablet games to detect early signs of cognitive decline. The project is called MoCHA: Monitoring Cognitive Health using Apps.

One MoCHA game requires the player to move around a 1970s- themed town doing daily errands. It tests his memory by tracking how many times he drives back "home" to check on the tasks he has to do. By monitoring the person's performance over time, the system can detect and alert his doctor of any worrisome changes.

Said Dr Farber: "If someone is worried about their cognitive health, it is useful for them to have something objective so that they can better understand their own condition and also convince their family if they are sceptical."

The MoCHA games are in the final stages of an 18-month trial at the Gerontology Research Programme in the National University of Singapore's Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

This proof-of-concept study involves about 80 seniors, who play the game every two weeks. The study will end this month.

Details on when the games will be available are being worked out, and the team hopes they will be used at home or in eldercare centres as a tool for early detection of dementia.

But the target, Dr Farber said, is not to sell it to individuals but to make it available through healthcare organisations.

Currently, the Mini Mental State Examination - a 30-point questionnaire - is the most popular and widely-used tool to screen for cognitive impairment.

It has to be repeated once a year to detect declining performance, said Associate Professor Ng Tze Pin, lead principal investigator of the Gerontology Research Programme. He said that by building psychometric measurements into MoCHA, the game scores may be used to substitute for cognitive test performance scores.

"This may be equally, if not more, sensitive and accurate in detecting declines in cognitive function," he added.

Separately, the team from A*Star's Institute of Infocomm Research has developed a "brain- computer interface" technology to train the memory, concentration and other cognitive functions of its users. The project, led by the head of the institute's department for neural and biomedical technology, Dr Guan Cuntai, is being trial- tested on 240 seniors.

Three times a week for eight weeks, these seniors, aged between 60 and 70, go to a community centre where they put on a headgear embedded with electrodes, to play computer games. The gear detects brainwaves emitted while a player is paying attention. When he is distracted, the game stalls.

Pilot studies on 32 English- speaking and 36 Chinese-speaking seniors in 2013 and 2014 found the technology to be effective.

Associate Professor Lee Tih Shih of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, the project's clinical principal investigator, said preliminary results show the system improved the memory and cognitive functioning of both groups of elderly. The technology needs further trials but discussions have begun with a few firms that want to commercialise the product.

Once proven effective, it will have to be approved by the Health Sciences Authority, which could take one to three years. "But eventually, our device can be part of an armamentarium for physicians to help patients," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline 'Games for seniors are not just for fun'. Print Edition | Subscribe