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Brainteaser: Can an iPad Game Detect Alzheimer's?

Pfizer is testing a mobile game's ability to spot and track Alzheimer's.

Courtesy: Akili Interactive Labs

Pfizer wants to find out if an iOS game can detect and track the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

The pharmaceutical giant has struck a deal with therapeutic game developer Akili Interactive Labs to test whether Project:EVO, which runs on iPhones and iPads, can discern cognitive differences in healthy older adults at risk of developing the disease. The agreement will be announced Thursday morning.

Depending on the results, the game could be used to spot early signs of Alzheimer’s and measure response to treatment. As far as Akili knows, it’s the first time a pharmaceutical company has tested a video game’s ability to identify signs of disease.

Researchers at the Gazzaley Lab at the University of California, San Francisco first developed the underlying mechanics in Project:EVO for NeuroRacer, a video game that required players to steer around a track while shooting down road signs. A study found that the multitasking strains of the challenges actually improved working memory and sustained focus among the elderly — and that the cognitive gains persisted for months.

Scientists considered the results a step forward in efforts to reinvigorate aging brains, setting up guideposts for future research in the field. The study made the cover of the journal Nature, under the banner headline “Game Changer.”

UCSF lab director Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist long focused on technology’s positive and negative impacts on the brain, co-founded Akili in late 2011 to help translate his research findings into medical products.

“I wanted it to leave the lab and go into industry,” he said.

The original design team for NeuroRacer included several gaming developers from LucasArts Entertainment, including Matthew Omernick, who worked on the Stars Wars: The Force Unleashed franchise. He subsequently joined Akili as executive creative director and worked with another LucasArts alum, Adam Piper, to design the next generation of the concept. Project:EVO incorporates slicker graphics, advanced gaming features and additional scientific tools.

“It’s a way more playable and enjoyable game,” Gazzaley said.

Check out the video interview with Adam Gazzaley below for more on why he started working on NeuroRacer:

Under the agreement announced Thursday, Pfizer will evaluate about 100 healthy elderly individuals both with and without amyloid in their brains, the main component of brain plaques and a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s.

Essentially, researchers will be looking for specific differences in performance and improvement between the two populations over the course of a month. The game, and thus the results, adjusts for each person’s baseline video gaming playing abilities.

They hope that specific performance characteristics can be used as a “biomarker,” or early indication of Alzheimer’s, which could among other things help in identifying at-risk populations for future clinical trials and drug development.

“There is no good cognitive signature, a symptom if you will, for someone who is healthy but has a strong risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” said Eddie Martucci, vice president of research and development at Boston-based Akili.

In addition, performance could serve as a “clinical endpoint,” a benchmark that allows doctors to evaluate how a patient responds to treatment and adjust accordingly.

It won’t be evaluated in this clinical trial, but since the earlier game helped to improve focus and memory, there’s also the potential in the long term to use Project:EVO as part of a therapy regimen. The game is not commercially available in Apple’s App Store at this point.

In the last year, Akili has raised $7 million through direct investments, grants and partnerships that covered the cost of some of the company’s studies, which is how the Pfizer deal was structured.

Akili also revealed an earlier direct investment from Shire, which makes and holds patents for Adderall, a drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Shire is working with the company to test the game’s potential for patients with ADHD. Meanwhile, Akili is conducting separate clinical trials exploring Project:EVO’s effect on those with depression, autism and other medical conditions.

“We think this is an emerging field and we want to be the leaders in it,” Martucci said. “We’re making a new type of product: Mobile video games that can be mainstream medical tools.”

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