Game on: Innovative online project expands dementia research

October 1, 2021

Launching an astronaut from one planet to successfully land on another could be the future of detecting cognitive and functional decline in the elderly.

Not launches initiated by NASA Mission Control, but by ordinary people playing a simple computer game developed by Andrew Hooyman, a postdoctoral researcher at Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

“Help Super G Explore the Solar System”, a simple game created by Andrew Hooyman, ASU postdoctoral researcher, is part of an online research project to study motor task learning and its relationship to future decline cognitive and functional, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Graphics by Andrew Hooyman and Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast / ASU
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This work, conducted in collaboration with researchers at ASU, the University of Utah and the Translational Genomics Research Institute, aligns with new initiatives from the National Institutes of Health aimed at enabling earlier and longer detection. specific to Alzheimer’s disease. Understanding how current mental and physical abilities predict a person’s future abilities is a component of this endeavor.

“We need to be able to identify people who are going to experience cognitive or functional decline, and then provide advice or intervention early on,” Hooyman said. “We are trying to bring this research into the 21st century. “

Hooyman is in the early stages of an innovative project to achieve this goal using an online research platform. Joining forces with an influential team of collaborators was key to Hooyman’s selection to receive the competitive NIH F32 Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service from the National Institute on Aging, one of the National Institutes of Health.

This scholarship program supports research training that prepares promising postdoctoral candidates for health-related scientific research careers.

“Andrew’s career development plan is overseen by a unique and strong supportive mentoring team across multiple disciplines,” says Sydney Schaefer, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Fulton Schools and mentor at Hooyman. “He has organized a three-year career development plan that offers new training opportunities in big data and statistics that have direct clinical relevance to Alzheimer’s disease.

For Hooyman, recognition by the NIH validated his work and his decision to pursue a career as a professor.

“This award promotes research in a way that makes it identifiable as something of interest and something to watch out for in the future,” Hooyman said. “It’s extremely important, it’s competitive and I’m very happy and I feel lucky to be where I am today because of it.”

An innovative way to assess learning

Andrew Hooyman

Hooyman studies how people acquire motor skills and brings to his research a unique combination of expertise in neuroscience, data science and computer programming.

Earlier in his studies as a doctoral student in biokinesiology and movement neuroscience at the University of Southern California, Hooyman developed a game as a new way to study how people acquire motor skills.

In “Help Super G Explore the Solar System”, players use the arrow keys on the keyboard to launch an astronaut named Super G from one planet to another. The astronaut has only a limited amount of fuel, so there is limited time to travel to the next planet. If the players fail before they reach their goal, they start over. If they are successful, the planet stages a fireworks display.

“We don’t tell people the best way to play; we want to see how they learn that, ”says Hooyman.

His work replicated the results of a 20-year study that showed that about 30% of participants were classified as non-learners or very slow learners in an equally simple motor skill task. He hypothesized that if he used the same game with older people, it could be a strong indicator of whether a person will experience cognitive or functional decline a year or more.

A new frontier in online research

Hooyman’s doctoral research caught Schaefer’s attention at a conference. In his work, Schaefer examines how physical function while learning a motor skill predicts cognitive or functional decline in the elderly. With their common interests, Hooyman joined Schaefer’s lab as a postdoctoral researcher in 2019.

A conversation between Hooyman and Schaefer on a road trip in late 2019 set Hooyman on the path to taking his research to a new frontier: online.

“I remember we were driving and I said to (Schaefer) ‘I’d love to run a virtual lab,'” he recalls, adding that he thinks he would be a lot more successful if he could do it. all his research online. – and make it more accessible and interest more people in research.

Schaefer was open to the idea and encouraged him to submit it to the National Institutes of Health. This idea would become the foundation of his National Institute on Aging scholarship.

“That support was very important to be able to fit this idea into that road trip and put it in a grant and phrase it in a way that the National Institute on Aging has deemed meritorious,” Hooyman said.

Online assessments are something few other research groups do, but Hooyman and Schaefer are leading the way with a team of influential researchers in the field of cognition and aging.

Matt Huentelman, professor of neurogenomics at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, is also the director of MindCrowd, an online data collection research project. MindCrowd examines how lifestyle, demographics, genetics, and cognitive factors predict different variables of aging, including dementia. Huentelman gave Hooyman his first chance to realize his dream of having an online lab.

“I didn’t even know at the time if I could do this because it used to be done in a lab, ”says Hooyman. “Whether it was out of foolishness, recklessness or courage, I said, ‘Of course we can try to do it.’ And we were able to do it and we did it quite effectively. ”

Hooyman and Schaefer wrote an article recently accepted by the research journal Developmental Neuropsychology which demonstrates that motor tasks are performed both at home and in the laboratory (read the pre-print of the article), which confirmed the feasibility of conducting research through an online platform such as MindCrowd.

MindCrowd has 20,000 seniors among its participants and enables research teams to reach more people faster than a traditional lab study. It also provides access to additional variables not available in research conducted in a single physical lab space.

“We will be able to understand how the way people play this game relates to lifestyle factors and cultural factors in the areas where they live,” Hooyman said. “It would be interesting for us to try to determine how the risk of dementia depends on geography. “

Kevin Duff, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Utah, focuses on the practical effect of Hooyman’s play – how an individual’s performance changes with increased familiarity with the task – and how this predicts cognition and subsequent function.

“The main goal of the research is to be able to examine how the effect of practice that we measure in play predicts long-term changes in cognition,” says Hooyman. “So, a year after playing the game for the first time, how does their cognitive score change? How is their functional score changing? And how does the effect of practice predict this change? “

Hooyman and the research team are looking for ways to increase the accessibility and impact of the project. Hooyman is also exploring how to translate gaming into a mobile experience, as most of the people he tries to reach access the internet much more often from their smartphones or tablets than through a desktop or laptop. This additional aspect of the research was recently funded by the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium.

Hooyman and colleagues will continue to refine the online portions of the study as well as perform laboratory assessments to improve their methodology and discover ways to predict cognitive decline before it occurs to enable effective interventions. .

A great learning experience

As Hooyman opens up a new avenue for Alzheimer’s disease research, the real purpose of the Kirschstein Prize is to support the multidisciplinary collaborations that are taking place alongside this research.

“(The National Institute on Aging) loves the institution I work in, the people around me, and the research plan I had as well,” Hooyman said. “Everyone I have as a sponsor or co-sponsor [for this research project] is open to new ideas. They are ready to try something interesting and see how it works.

Duff’s specialization in the effects practice is important in helping Hooyman expand the reach of his play in the field of neuropsychology, aging and dementia.

In addition to the MindCrowd platform, Huentelman also has “some very interesting questions about how aging, lifestyle, genetics and cognition interact,” says Hooyman. This offers some interesting opportunities to see how his game might help answer these questions.

Schaefer is one of the few biomedical engineering researchers to examine aging, motor and learning skills, and cognition together, and he is an excellent mentor to Hooyman during this phase of his career.

“It is very beneficial for me to be able to gain expertise in Neuropsychology, Genetics and Online Research, Motor Skills and Aging and combine all of these to formulate a career path that will make me a strong candidate. as an independent researcher. ” Hooyman said.

The fact that the research is innovative may just be the icing on the cake, says Hooyman.

Schaefer says Hooyman’s research strengths lie in his ability to create inventive and clinically relevant research methods.

“It’s innovative because it merges data science, video game programming and neuropsychology to characterize and identify learning deficits that may be associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” Schaefer explains. “It is also innovative in its methodology because it engages with its participants entirely remotely. Thus, he is fully prepared to advance research during the COVID-19 pandemic. ”

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