Health IT

In gamification milestone, Pfizer will assess video game in clinical trial for Alzheimer’s disease

akili video game 2In a move that could have a significant impact on how pharmaceutical companies view gamification, Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) has agreed to test the use of a mobile video game from Akili Interactive Labs to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

The goal of the trial is to evaluate Akili’s game as a biomarker for potential use in future Alzheimer’s trials, according to a company statement.

Pfizer will conduct a clinical trial of 100 people to evaluate healthy elderly subjects with and without the presence of amyloid in their brains, based on Positron Emission Tomography imaging, according to a company statement. Their cognitive abilities will be assessed both at baseline and across one month of game play.

The video game, Evo Challenge, consists of navigating a character on a platform around a series of obstacles and collecting different colored tokens and coins.


The game is designed to quantify and improve the ability of users to deal with cognitive interference — distractions and interruptions which impact their ability to pay attention, plan and make decisions. A weakness in being able to process interference  is a common symptom associated with degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and psychiatric conditions such as ADHD, autism and depression.

Michael Ehlers, Chief Scientific Officer of the Neuroscience Research Unit at Pfizer said in the statement: “A tool that enables cognitive monitoring for the selection and assessment of clinical trial patients has the potential to be an important advance in Alzheimer’s research and beyond.”

Eddie Martucci, vice president of research and development at Akili, told MedCity News in a phone interview that  pharmaceutical companies have an interest in gaming as a therapy and as a biomarker.

In addition to Pfizer, Akili is also collaborating with Shire Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: SHPG) to study the game with ADHD. Akili is testing Project: EVO in connection with medical conditions where executive function is impaired including ADHD, depression and autism, according to the statement.

The video game’s underlying platform was developed at the University of California at San Francisco in the labs of Dr. Adam Gazzaley. His work was profiled in Nature last fall.

Although most people over the age of 50 would not be likely to have much experience with video games, Eric Elenko, acting chief business officer, said the game’s design adapts to each player’s ability. “We have a proprietary adaptive algorithm that gives a baseline. The game will automatically adjust to the player’s functional level, whether they are a 70-year-old with cognitive impairment, a 10-year-old with ADHD or a 20-year-old gaming mastermind.” Several members of Akili’s game design team come from Lucas Arts.

He added: “”I think the interest from Pfizer really stems from a recognition of an unmet need – the need for better tools to assess cognitive ability or recognition of early stages of neurodegenerative diseases.”

Martucci emphasized the company’s scientific discipline, validating its findings in a scientifically robust way, as a critical factor to attracting pharma to innovative technologies such as gaming platforms.

He said the company envisions these games as ultimately being prescribed by a healthcare provider to a patient. “We look at our game as a medical product with medical uses.”