lumosityThere’s a lot of literature on the benefits of games, both psychological and physical.

For instance, an American Psychological Association study published last fall found that playing video games, even gory shoot-‘em-ups, might improve a child’s health and learning. Several others indicate that games can boost decision-making, hand-eye coordination, and reflexes. Another study found that surgeons who play games three hours a week made 37 percent fewer errors and work 27 percent faster in laparoscopic surgery than doctors who don’t. And the more they played, the better they performed, with top gamer docs committing 47 percent fewer errors and working 39 percent faster than others. A group of surgical residents at Yale who practiced in a virtual reality simulator known as a MIST VR trainer performed gall bladder surgery 29 percent faster than those who did not while the group that didn’t train in the simulator were five times more likely to injure the gallbladder or burn non-target tissue.

Now comes a new study involving Lumosity, a San Francisco company offering online brain teasers, and this one is particularly intriguing. It found that Lumosity games might be able to diagnose liver disease, specifically diagnose neurocognitive abnormalities caused by cirrhosis. Although, it must be noted, that Lumosity did not sponsor this study (but is nonetheless happy with the results).

Patients who suffer from the disease, which involves scarring and poor functioning of the organ, frequently develop cognitive impairments as their condition worsens. This could mean lapses in memory, fatigue, or even (in very acute cases) coma.

Dr. George Ioannou, a Seattle based researcher, wondered if it were possible to use Lumosity’s brain games to see if those with pre-cirrhotic conditions perform differently than those who are cirrhotic. It turns out that for two games that it did.

The study looked at five of Lumosity’s brain teaser-like games, with each one challenging a different facet of users’ speed and information processing. The two games that were found to be statistically signifiant in differentiating participant’s conditions were called Color Match and Memory Matrix. Color Match is a digitized version of the Stroop test, which writes the name of a color in a different color and asked the players to name the hue in which each word is written. Memory Matrix shows the users a grid of tiles, has the grid disappear, and then asks them to recreate it.

According to the results, these two games were able to differentiate between the performance between the three groups of participants (cirrhotic, pre-cirrhotic, and neither). What this means is that potentially these games could be used to diagnose pre-cirrhotic patients who suffer from minimal hepatic encephalopathy (or MHE). One study says up to 80 percent of patients could suffer from some form of MHE.

Often those suffering from MHE don’t know it. They just become forgetful. “Imagine someone who’s at work whose memory is impaired, concentrations impaired, [and] doesn’t have a diagnosis to explain what’s going on,” Dr. Ioannou says. If this study is validated then it’s possible that one day those suffering from MHE could be more easily and earlier diagnosed.

This study differs from other Lumosity-based research findings. In the past the company has publicized instances when researchers have tapped its trove of user data to study learning behaviors. Given that so many people use the app, independent researchers found its data-points useful for studying what and how people learn over time. But diagnosing an ailment is vastly different than understanding learning patterns.

Another difference is its relatively small sample size. The study tested 75 people in total: 31 were cirrhotic, 28 were pre-cirrhotic, 16 were controls. While the results were statistically significant, this doesn’t mean that Dr Ioannou has definitively found a way to diagnose MHE. What needs to come next, he says, is a much larger study.

Until then, we only have its potential. Still, it’s noteworthy, and it’s fun to imagine the possibilities. Could games one day diagnose other physical ailments that have corresponding neurological underpinnings? That would truly be a brain game worth playing.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]