Carleton, Algonquin and AGE-WELL Launch Dementia Study

By Tyrone Burke

A tiny cartoon mole pops its head from the ground to peek at what’s around and . . . whack!

It turns out that you never get too old for a carnival classic. Carleton researchers are using a video game inspired by the midway standard whack-a-mole to monitor changes in seniors with dementia.

“The game measures speed of processing — how quickly someone is able to hit a mole – and inhibition,” says Frank Knoefel, a physician, clinical researcher and adjunct research professor in Carleton’s Department of Systems and Computer Engineering. “We added some bunnies to pop up once in a while, and we don’t want to whack the bunny. Both speed of processing and inhibition can decline with advancing dementia.”

Seeking to yield insights into how brain function evolves as dementia progresses, a new partnership brings together researchers from Carleton, the Bruyère Research Institute and Algonquin College to better understand how cognition and mobility are impacted as dementia grows more severe.

Data is collected by students at Algonquin’s Garbarino Girard Centre for Innovation in Seniors Care, who work directly with seniors from the Western Ottawa Community Resource Centre Adult Day Program in a simulated home environment on campus. The video game records all results, and researchers at Carleton retrieve the data for analysis, led by Rafik Goubran, vice-president (Research and International).

“This project looks at how technology can help identify early indicators of decline to support improved diagnosis and treatment of cognitive issues,” said Goubran.

Whacking moles isn’t just more fun than most memory tests, it can be more effective. Using video games allows Knoefel and Goubran to track changes that traditional cognitive testing methods would miss. Formal memory tests stop working as dementia progresses and patients are unable to understand what is being asked of them, and even in a best-case scenario, stress can affect the results they yield.

“The last thing anyone wants is to sit in front of their doctor and hear: ‘I’m going to ask you 25 questions and — no pressure — but I might take away your driver’s license,'” says Knoefel.  “The stress associated with having that kind of testing in significant. We track the evolution of the dementia using games like this . . . and then we can see if our treatments are working because we want to slow down the progression.”

The 12-month study, supported by the AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence, will also explore mobility as a marker of changing brain function. It uses a Biodex balance board to gauge how seniors adapt to changing conditions underfoot. The machine measures pressure changes on the board underneath as it shifts and seniors rebalance themselves, tracking how balance changes over time, as well as how distractions impact it.

For Algonquin, this clinical study is a first, but the partnership was a natural fit.

The Garbarino Girard Centre already had the Biodex machine and its simulated home environment offered a location where researchers could count on seniors being at ease.

“All we had to was add the whack-a-mole game, and everything would be complete,” Knoefel says.

But the partnership is mutually beneficial – the research will also help Algonquin train better health care workers.

“It’s a hands-on environment with patients,” says Barbara Foulds, Algonquin’s dean of Health, Public Safety and Community Studies. “These are the caregivers who actually give care in the real world – personal support workers, physiotherapy and occupational therapy assistants, nursing students. They’re all involved and engaged here. They have an opportunity to contribute and, when they’ve studied this, they’re better prepared.”

Algonquin envisions a bright future for research partnerships at the simulated home setting of the Gabarino Girard Centre.

“This is just the beginning,” Foulds says. “There’s opportunity to do even more.”