higher resolution

A UC Davis researcher’s startup aims to perfect a neurotherapeutic video game that enhances how people with cognitive impairments handle information about space and time — and allows them to build everyday skills.

Children with fragile X and many other neurodevelopmental disorders tend to experience space and time differently than most people — almost in a kind of lower resolution. So do adults with certain types of brain injuries or aging-related cognitive challenges.

The lack of detail in this distinctive form of “spatiotemporal cognition” can unfortunately translate into severe difficulties learning crucial everyday skills. For children, that includes understanding numbers, money and time; for brain-injury victims, controlling motor skills while picking up a cup of coffee; and for seniors, aspects of memory and the ability to walk or drive without mishap.

“With a low-resolution camera, there’s a loss of information in how the world is mentally represented,” said pediatric cognitive neuroscientist Tony Simon, Ph.D., a UC Davis MIND Institute researcher and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “If you have a high-resolution image, you can do a lot more with it.”

Now a startup company co-founded by Simon is developing video games that could act as “digital medicine” to treat children and adults with those cognitive impairments. The company, Cognivive, is built on research by Simon and others showing that action video games can enhance players’ spatiotemporal cognitive abilities.

Last winter Cognivive was one of 22 startups featured at a Washington, D.C. innovation and entrepreneurship showcase hosted by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the Association of American Universities. The company was also awarded a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institutes of Health for feasibility studies, and was a finalist in the Sacramento Kings “Capitalize” startup competition.

“Our early findings with prototypes have suggested that we have a fun game with positive impact on spatial attention,” Simon said. “We need to build a much more fully functional version, and then really engage in something that resembles a clinical trial to see whether we can show it has the effect we believe it should.”

Simon began thinking about using video games to build cognitive abilities about 15 years ago, after seeing a conference poster on gaming and the brain and connecting it with his own research on how cognitive deficits affect perception. He also became aware of research demonstrating that action gamers show enhanced spatiotemporal cognition.

“The question for me became, ‘What was the active component in those kinds of games that we could extract out and make much more palatable?’” Simon said. “Games with much more targeted interventions for young kids with neurodevelopmental disorders” such as fragile X, chromosome 22q11.2 deletion, Turner and Williams syndromes.

Simon developed an algorithm that could measure a person’s spatial and temporal resolution. That fueled development of the game, initially with $20,000 in private donations but now being developed by Cognivive. The firm launched with the backing of UC Davis’ Venture Catalyst accelerator in 2017 (see sidebar) and is raising capital as a private company.

The initial prototype “Fastbrain” had players zap ghosts that popped out at different distances and intervals around a “ghostbuster” avatar. The game is designed to adapt its difficulty to each player’s ability based only on their spatial and temporal processing capabilities, Simon said, so that optimal stimulation needed to improve them is maintained.

It’s also designed so the level of challenge adapts to the player’s capabilities, making what Cognivive brands as “digital medicines people want to take.” This promotes improvements in neurocognitive processing abilities, he said, which may induce long-term improvements in the player’s higher-level functional abilities.

A small pilot trial with several children with neurodevelopmental disorders and 20 seniors has produced preliminary evidence that treatments can improve cognitive functioning in several domains, Simon said, but that this was not the case after they played another game with high spatial and temporal demands.