Researchers Create Games To Help Mentally Impaired

Study Develops Simple Computer Game Meant To Help Children With Fragile-X Syndrome

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A professor of art history and a computer designer from UC Berkeley have teamed up with a doctor from UC Davis to create games that provide more than just entertainment to children with fragile-X syndrome, a form of mental retardation.

By tracking the movements of ladybugs on a computer screen, children with the syndrome may be able to strengthen neural connections compromised by the disease, said Greg Niemeyer, a UC Berkeley associate professor of art practice who is working on the project along with Kimiko Ryokai, an assistant professor in the school of information.

Fragile-X syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes weak synaptic connections in the brain. Symptoms range from mental impairment to delays in speech and language development.

The game is meant to be used in combination with a new drug designed to reverse neurobiological abnormalities caused by the disease.

"This is new territory, and it's made possible because of our new medical understanding of fragile-X and the new medication that can strengthen synapses," said Randi Hagerman, UC Davis professor of pediatrics and a collaborator on the project. "If we can strengthen synaptic connections, then we put together the learning information that can help strengthen the right connections."

This is not the first game developed to treat the disease. Another game by the same researchers is in clinical trials for patients with a form of the disease that causes tremors and balance problems.

The researchers tried the latest game on children around the age of three at an Oakland head start school and said it had potential to help children without the disease as well.

"Other individuals besides those with fragile-X could benefit from these games," Hagerman said. "The game could be helpful for a lot of these kids to simulate developmental ways."

Researchers have been testing the game on children to see how they respond to it. Their findings led them to start developing a similar game with toys, which children are more drawn to than a computer screen.

The research is funded by a grant from the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, which supports projects aimed at developing applications to create social change. Researchers from four UC campuses-Berkeley, Davis, Merced, and Santa Cruz­­-are working with the center to form collaborations between different disciplines.

The researchers on this project said they gained inspiration by merging their various perspectives together to create new technologies.

"Sometimes there are disagreements ... for me the project might not be as creative, but we all agree that when it's new for all of us, that is the best, so we are constantly seeking innovation," Niemeyer said. "If you put the three of us in a room, you speed up the innovation cycle much faster."


Christine Chen covers research & ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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