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Virtual reality game could help early detection of schizophrenia

EU-funding under the ALTEREGO project has helped researchers develop a ‘mirror game’ using artificial intelligence that could provide an affordable, non-invasive way to diagnose and monitor schizophrenia.

The project developed artificial intelligence that can interact with patients suffering from social disorders such as schizophrenia. This could provide a reliable, adaptable and affordable way of diagnosing and monitoring the treatment of schizophrenia in patients of all ages. The recent study published on 1 February 2017 in the journal ‘Nature’ described a coordination task – known as the mirror game – in which patients mimic a computer avatar or humanoid robot ‘partner’ on a screen. By identifying and analysing impairments in movement and social interaction, the game can detect schizophrenia patients with a high degree of accuracy. ‘Studying how people move and react to others may seem a simplistic way to help diagnose a patient with such a debilitating condition, but our results were comparable to existing, more expensive neuroimaging methods,’ explained Dr Piotr Słowiński, lead author of the study and mathematics research fellow at the University of Exeter. The ‘mirror game’ In more concrete terms, participants were asked to play the game on their own, moving a ball mounted along a string. Participants were then asked to follow the motion of the computer avatar acting as the leader. The recorded motion data captured changes in the speed of movement and interpersonal coordination. Statistical learning techniques were then used to analyse the data, using multiple features and applying a majority vote rule. The results distinguished between schizophrenia patients and controls with 93 % accuracy and 100 % specificity. The game was repeated with an iCub humanoid robot to validate the findings. The mirror test is more accurate than existing motor assessment tools, and has the advantage of being quicker, cheaper and less invasive. Additionally, the ‘playing a game’ nature of the task may make it a particularly useful diagnostic tool for children. Next steps Schizophrenia is a severe brain disorder affecting 21 million people worldwide. Symptoms can include delusions and auditory hallucinations. The condition can disrupt everyday life and cause difficulties in work and social relationships, although effective treatments are available. Early screening is key to better prevention and treatment – and that’s where the work of the ALTEREGO project which ended in 2016 could prove so crucial in the future. Dr Piotr Słowiński concludes, ‘Although this is still at a relatively early stage, we are confident that clinical trials could reveal the potential of the mirror test to produce a reliable, adaptable and, crucially, affordable, method for diagnosing and monitoring treatment of schizophrenia in patients of all ages, and all stages of the condition.’ For more information please see: ALTEREGO project website



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