Hand gestures used in playing popular mobile games may one day help spot the subtle changes in motor abilities seen in people experiencing cognitive decline, according to a new proof-of-concept study.

In a group of cognitively healthy young adults, investigators studied patterns of tap, swipe and rotational gaming gestures during game play. Sensors built into mobile phones were used to collect the data. Investigators also tested the participants’ cognitive performance in a paper exam. 

The study revealed the participants’ abilities in visuo-spatial and visual search tasks, along with memory, mental flexibility and attention span – all clues to an individuals’ overall brain health, wrote researcher Jim Ang, Ph.D., University of Kent and colleagues.

Ang and his team found that the speed, length and intensity of these gaming motions correlates with brain function. In addition, subsequent data collected from people with brain damage support these results, Ang reported. 

The researchers concluded that game-based cognitive assessments may one day help spot early, subtle changes in motor abilities such as those observed in Alzheimer’s Disease, stroke, traumatic brain injury, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive-disorder. They are currently developing an algorithm that will automatically monitor individuals’ cognitive performance during game play.

Games used in the study included Tetris, Candy Crush Saga and Fruit Ninja. These games were chosen in part for the intensive interactions and multiple gestures they require during play, according to the researchers.

The results were presented Thursday at an Association for Computing Machinery conference in London.