Mindfulness and Alzheimer’s treatment

I came across a new abstract on PubMed from a conference paper describing a study of the efficacy of mindfulness training in Alzheimer’s Disease. The full-text is not available yet (and is in Spanish), but an English-language abstract is currently available.

According to the abstract, researchers and health professionals in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, in the Canary Islands, recruited 127 individuals identified as probable Alzheimer’s patients. The participants were assigned to one of three experimental conditions (mindfulness, progressive muscular relaxation or “cognitive stimulation”) or a control group. After two-years, participants in all groups, except the mindfulness group, showed small declines in cognitive skills. This research appears to be the basis for one of the author’s thesis research (Dr. Domingo Quintana-Hernández), which is described in more detail on his ResearchGate profile.

Normally, I think of mindfulness training as a technique for producing stress-reduction, rather than a technique to improve, or preserve, cognitive function. However, a number of studies have found anatomical differences in the brains of meditators and non-meditators (see a recent meta-analysis by Fox and colleagues) which include the hippocampus.  The hippocampus is a critical structure for declarative memory in humans, and is damaged in Azheimer’s patients. And, several studies have shown that meditation can prevent age-related cognitive decline (see the recent review by Gard, Hölzel and Lazar). Last year, a small study of 14 participants with mild cognitive impairment (who are are at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease) conducted by Dr. Rebecca Wells and colleagues) found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) was effective in preventing decline in measures of brain activity and measures of hippocampal atrophy over the 8 week training intervention.

I would be interested in seeing more information on this study when the full conference paper is published, but the basic idea that mindfulness training could help preserve cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients is fascinating, and worth more study.

Casual games for better cognition?

Are casual video games good “exercise for the brain”? TL;DR A study last year by Oei & Patterson (2013) found significant benefits after casual video game training on several measures of cognition, in areas of attention, cognitive control and working memory. But, whether you should pick up a new iPhone game just for brain “exercise” is still an open question.

With the current popularity of “brain-training” games (think of Lumosity’s ubiquitous ads), it is interesting to note that relatively little research has tested if video games, especially those targeting casual gamers, provide any cognitive benefits. The main exception would be for action games (first-person shooters), which have been found to produce improvements in visual attention (see Green & Bavelier’s 2003 Nature paper).

Recently, more studies have been published which have tested the cognitive benefits of a range of casual video games on wider range of cognitive skills. Last year, Oei and Patterson, of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, published a study in PLoS ONE (available online for free). This was an interesting study, where participants completed baseline tests (of attention, spatial memory, working memory, and visual search). Afterwards, they randomly assigned participants to play one of 5 games (action, match-3, simulation, hidden-object and “memory matrix”). Each of the games was downloaded from iTunes, and participants played the games using their own iPod or iPhone. Continue reading

Shared hosting and the holiday season bump

It seems that every time I leave town to visit family, some issue comes up with my research games that is difficult to deal with while travelling. This Christmas holiday was no exception, as I noticed on Christmas day that I had an email with the subject heading “URGENT: Account Suspension.” The automated message was not encouraging:

System administration was forced to suspend your site in an emergency to prevent server and system overloads. We should have more information forthcoming and will attempt to reach out to you shortly…

CPUusageDecember

CPU usage as reported in cPanel with our webhost.

Scary stuff, but when I attempted to load the site, it seemed to be running fine, and I did not see any unusual activity (though Resource Usage graph provided by my webhost showed a spike in activity).  Since the site appeared to have not been suspended, I assumed there were no major issues, but I did sent a reply to the tech support at my webhost.  I received a reply fairly quickly, and it turned out my most recent research game, Taxi Dash, was generating a lot of POST requests to a page on my site (in excess of 70k per day at the worst).

Eventually, my site was suspended (twice) as the resource use triggered automated suspensions.  The tech support staff in general were very helpful, and although they did want to move me up to a more expensive plan, they did reactivate my site, and have given me some time to get the resource use under control.  For behaviorgames.com, I use a shared hosting package, which allows me to run the site for a modest cost. The shared hosting package I use has limits, though, in how much of the server CPU it should be using in a day. Usually this CPU cap isn’t a problem, since the research games that I am working with are distributed mostly through mobile app stores (on iOS and Android), and I use the website primarily to provide information about the games and to collect data. However, the version of Taxi Dash that was live on two stores (Barnes and Noble, and Amazon), was set up to communicate with the server too often, it turns out.  Each installation sends high scores, information on how much of the game a player has completed, and more detailed analytics that help us test our research hypotheses, and improve the game.

Number of installs of Taxi Dash on the Barnes and Noble Nook in December.

Number of installs of Taxi Dash on the Barnes and Noble Nook in December.

And, in the way that I had structured these requests, each installation was generating a LOT of POST requests.  Especially around Christmas, when the number of installations from the Barnes and Noble app store shot up dramatically.  I had expected a lot of new installs, as there is typically a holiday season bump around Christmas in the U.S., but in the past this has not caused problems with my website.  The difference this year was that as new users downloaded Taxi Dash, the demand on my site was increasing dramatically for each installation.

Even now, after the Christmas rush has died down, I am still seeing a lot of traffic generated by the game.  I have had only 7,581 unique visitors in the first 6 days of January, but those visitors have generated 289k page requests.  Each of those requests attempts to connect to the mySQL database that I use for saving data, and that combination of traffic with the processing required to connect to the database seems to be the main issue.

For now, I have disabled the script that handles communicating with Taxi Dash, and I hope this will be enough to keep the site from being suspended again.  My overall CPU usage is down in the past few days (as you can see in the graph above), but it’s difficult for me to say if that is from a change in the script, or if it is just due to a decrease in traffic to the page (though, I am still seeing 50-75k page requests in most days so far in January, this is still lower than I saw at the peak around Christmas (of 80-95k)).  In any case, a new version of Taxi Dash has been submitted to both Barnes and Noble and Amazon, and I hope they will both go live this week.  In the meantime, now I can get back to doing some research and planning for courses for next semester!

Using player analytics for game design

Our new game/research project, Taxi Dash, was quietly released on the Nook and Amazon Appstore in early May.  Over the first two weeks, we released one update, mainly to add a new feature and some bug fixes.  As we were preparing the second update, we thought it would be useful to take a look at the game’s performance, and the player behavior, to see if we could make any improvements that would increase user retention.

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