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Video game as screening, therapeutic tool for people with fragile X syndrome

Tera Kirk's picture

Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited cause of mental retardation that we know of. (Down Syndrome is more common, but only 3-4% of cases are inherited). Nevertheless, fragile X can take a long time to diagnose properly, because many doctors aren't familiar with its features. According to an article in last month's newsletter of UC Davis's Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), Dr. Randi Hagerman of the M.I.N.D. Institute is teaming up with media artists Greg Niemeyer and Kimiko Ryokai to create a video game that will not only help screen young children for some of the weaknesses associated with fragile X syndrome like visual-motor and visual-spatial skills, but could help kids improve those skills as well:

Called Track FX, the game will be played on a large touch-screen monitor encased in a durable, smooth wooden cabinet. One early-concept prototype starts with opposing rows of dots. The player tries to keep track of those dots as they disperse and bounce around the screen. When the dots stop, the player tries to pick out the dots that started together on one side. The final version, Niemeyer says, will be simpler and will include a cartoon character that will be captured by 'occluders.' It will be fun and challenging, but also revealing, says Niemeyer.

While the game doesn't diagnose fragile X syndrome--only a blood test can do that conclusively, and the impairments that the game tests for aren't unique to fragile X syndrome--it can alert parents and teachers to potential problems. It can also help kids with those problems improve their skills. Track FX encourages kids to use the skills that are hard for them, and will log the kids' progress and difficulties so that doctors and therapists can keep track of how they're improving and what areas are more difficult.

Recently, Dr. Hagerman found that older male carriers of the fragile X gene who don't have the full syndrome are prone to developing tremors, balance problems, mood and personality changes, and gradual intellectual decline. This condition is called Fragile X-Associated Tremor/Ataxia Syndrome (FXTAS), and is generally found in grandfathers of people with full fragile X syndrome. Hagerman and Niemeyer are developing a game specifically for people with FXTAS to help with balance, which uses an aluminum plate similar to the Wii's balance board.

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