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Using Computer Games to Aid Cognitive Development in African Children

Using computer games to aid cognitive development in African children

Michael Boivin, a professor in the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, had no intentions of working in Africa until he met his wife, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and whose father was a physician and missionary.

Nearly a decade after getting married, Boivin and his family went on a month-long trip to Africa for the first time to see where his wife grew up.  It was there, after spending time with his father-in-law, that Boivin realized his true calling.

“I was just tremendously moved,” Boivin said. “I became aware of the different needs children had in villages that didn’t have U.S. government sponsored public health programs and those that did.”

It was at that point that Boivin decided to use whatever child development tools he could to make a difference in the lives of these children.

Since that fateful family trip, Boivin has been working with children and families in other areas of Africa, such as Senegal, Benin, Mali, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

Through a previous grant, Boivin and his team followed Ugandan children with HIV by tracking their development using computerized cognitive rehabilitation therapies, some created by the MSU Games for Entertainment and Learning lab in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. He also led an  8-year research program in computer cognitive games rehabilitation for school-age children surviving severe malaria in Uganda.

Now Boivin has received a $3.2 million National Insitutes of Health grant to further his work and evaluate neurocognitive rehabilitation and evaluation in children affected by HIV in both Uganda and Malawi. The 5-year grant will help African children born to mothers with HIV and their non-HIV exposed counterparts.

Boivin and his research team will follow these children through middle childhood and into early adolescence as they navigate the various psychosocial and cognitive risks and disabilities that can often arise in these settings.

“This support will help us pioneer a new and innovative strategy for assessing brain and behavior development,” Boivin said. “Our team will continue to develop cognitive game packages that can be used globally for at-risk children in low- and middle-income countries in the context of public health capacity building.”

The creation of these games was pioneered by Brian Winn, director of the Serious Games for Entertainment and Learning program at MSU. Winn and his team will begin this summer to adapt their already validated African Brain Powered Games packages into mobile-based assessment tools for tablet and smart phones.

Researchers hope the games can be a means of rehabilitation and cognitive stimulation, as well as gather information to look at the dynamic learning capacity of the children, especially in response to health and enrichment intervention programs.

“If the games prove sensitive, they may be a really useful, inexpensive, analytically powerful and accessible tool for evaluating the benefits of new types of treatments for HIV,” Boivin said.

In the future, the games could potentially help researchers gauge which children need more support and psychosocial/cognitive interventions as they move into adolescence and early adulthood.

“These gaming packages are a very innovative way to assess children, as opposed to the standard way of neurodevelopmental screening and assessment,” said Itziar Familia-Lopez, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and co-investigator on the study. “This is a novel way to engage children and it’s something that is enjoyable. It’s using new technology, but also, it’s proposing a new way to assess children who may have compromised neurodevelopment.”

Familia-Lopez added that the platform could potentially be used for additional health issues such as Zika, heavy metal and other toxic exposures.

“There are a range of insults to the brain where this could be applied; those of which we already know and those that are on the horizon,” Familia-Lopez said.

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