Gamified therapy offers hope to the elderly

Dementia: the statistics are sobering. According to the World Health Organization, 47.5 million people worldwide suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, with 7.7 million new cases occurring every year. In the United States alone, there are currently more than 5 million people with Alzheimer’s, and that number is predicted to double by mid-century due to an aging population.

But statistics are just numbers—what’s really heartbreaking is to see how Alzheimer’s affects a loved one. The declines in memory and reasoning may be slight at first, but eventually Alzheimer’s can rob its victims of their memories, intellect, and personality—in short, everything that made them who they were. Until you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to imagine the pain of seeing your loved one’s frustration as they lose their memory and speech, your parent unable to remember which of their children you are, or your spouse incapable of recognizing you at all.

Researchers around the world are searching for ways to prevent or cure Alzheimer’s and other dementias, but the underlying causes are still not completely understood. And with drug therapies offering only modest hope, treatments that stimulate mental activity have emerged as one of the more promising therapeutic areas. And that is where Memore—and Kinect for Windows—come in.

Memore is a suite of video games with a very serious purpose: to help improve the quality of life and cognitive function of elderly people who have or are at risk of developing dementia. Developed by RetroBrain R&D, an award-winning healthcare startup based in Hamburg, Germany, Memore successfully translates years of evidenced-based research from leading neurologists, rehabilitation specialists, and psychological experts—some of whom are members of RetroBrain R&D's advisory board—into real-time, second-by-second decisions embedded within the games.

The games thus incorporate proven therapies, which are based on the plasticity of the brain’s neurons—their ability to grow new connections—with a goal of delaying the effects of dementia and mild cognitive impairment. For example, in Memore’s motorcycle racing game, the player navigates through a soothing virtual landscape of leafy trees, clear skies, and pleasant weather. But he or she also confronts real challenges, such as avoiding obstacles and refueling the motorcycle, while racing toward the final destination. These scaled and adaptable cognitive tasks prime users’ reactions, balance, and spatial orientation, building skills that translate into positive real-world impacts—for example, decreasing the probability of the falls and fall-related injuries that plague many seniors. Such traumatic incidents can be especially devastating to dementia sufferers, worsening their disease progression while increasing the complexity and costs of their nursing care.

Moreover, thanks to Kinect for Windows, RetroBrain R&D’s Memore-games are completely gesture based, which means that players need not master the hand-to-eye coordination required to use a traditional controller. This user-friendly approach makes the games more attractive to elderly people, many of whom have had little or no prior experience with computer games and are, therefore, reluctant to attempt gamified therapy.

As Manouchehr Shamsrizi, one of the co-founders of RetroBrain R&D explains, “Microsoft's Kinect for Xbox One sensor allows for new, innovative control concepts, based on precise recognition of gestures and movements, thus creating a controller-free way of controlling video games. By using gesture-based controls, we avoid the main reason why older people often reject video games and computers: complex, tricky, and unintuitive controls.”

RetroBrain R&D’s developers took full advantage of the latest Kinect sensor and the free Kinect for Windows software development kit (SDK 2.0), using the system’s enhanced body tracking for heuristic recognition of simple gestures, Visual Gesture Builder for recognition of complex gestures, and the 1080p color camera to capture pictures of the user. In addition, the team used Kinect Studio to record and replay gestures, allowing them to refine their coding without being tethered to the Kinect sensor.

To date, RetroBrain R&D’s therapeutic games have shown great promise in case-by-case tests with dementia sufferers and the team has been selected as one of the most innovative and promising startups by the City of Hamburg. Pending the results of a larger, controlled study that is scheduled to begin in 2016, the company will seek certification of Memore as a therapeutic system. In the meantime, RetroBrain R&D's team will start selling to businesses and consumers and is currently looking for investment to scale up sales and continue marketing the games as a platform to enhance general wellbeing and quality of life for senior citizens.


The Kinect for Windows Team

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