Initial findings from one of the largest cognitive science experiments ever conducted have shown that mobile games can be used to reliably address psychology questions, paving the way to a better understanding of how cognitive function differs across populations.
With its first comprehensive set of results published today, The Great Brain Experiment, a free mobile app run by neuroscientists at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, uses ‘gamified’ neuroscience experiments to address scientific questions on a scale that would not be possible using traditional approaches. The app investigates memory, impulsivity, risk-taking and happiness. By playing the games, anyone can anonymously compare their abilities to the wider population and contribute to real scientific research. More than 60,000 people have taken part so far.
The results, published in the journal PLOS ONE, demonstrate that mobile games can be used to reliably conduct research in psychology and neuroscience, reproducing well-known findings from laboratory studies. The small size of standard laboratory studies means they can be limited in their ability to investigate variability in the population at large. With data sent in from many thousands of participants, the scientists at UCL can now investigate how factors such as age and education affect cognitive functions. This new way of doing science enables questions to be addressed which would not previously have been practical.
The researchers explained: “Smartphone users represent a participant pool far larger and more diverse than could ever be studied in the laboratory. By 2015, there will be an estimated two billion smartphone users worldwide. In time, data from simple apps could be combined with medical, genetic or lifestyle information to provide a novel tool for risk prediction and health monitoring.”
The Great Brain Experiment was funded by the Wellcome Trust and first released as part of last year’s Brain Awareness Week. Building on its initial success, the researchers have recently added four new games, including a “coconut shy” which tests people’s ability to perform under pressure. From this, the scientists hope to better understand how people make accurate movements in difficult situations. They are now calling on the public to download the app and throw coconuts to help science.
Rick Adams, a developer of the Great Brain Experiment based at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, said: “The initial aim was simply to make the public more aware of cognitive neuroscience experiments, and how they are conducted. However, with such large numbers of people downloading the app and submitting their results, it rapidly became clear that there was the potential for studying task performance at an unprecedented scale.”
Harriet Brown, a researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, said: “It is hoped that carefully measuring performance on a range of tasks may give rise to a better understanding of common mechanisms that underlie performance on these different tasks. Through better understanding of these common mechanisms, we may be able to characterise how they are altered in neurological and psychiatric disease.”
The Great Brain Experiment is a collaboration between the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL and the Wellcome Trust. It was developed by White Bat Games. It is a free app available for Android and Apple phones, which can be found on the Play Store/App Store and at the Great Brain Experiment website. The authors of the study published today, who also created the app, are: Harriet Brown, Peter Zeidman, Peter Smittenaar, Rick Adams, Fiona McNab, Robb Rutledge and Professor Raymond Dolan. A separate publication examining one of the games in the Great Brain Experiment is also out this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Image: A screen from the Great Brain Experiment iPhone app.
The Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL is an interdisciplinary centre for neuroimaging excellence. It brings together clinicians and scientists who study higher cognitive function using neuroimaging techniques. Their goal is to understand how thought and behaviour arise from brain activity, and how such processes break down in neurological and psychiatric disease.
About the Wellcome Trust
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.