How Xbox Can Help Fight Heart Disease

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Ian Nicholson / PA / AP

Heartworks, the first fully functioning virtual heart to help train cardiologists and doctors

Countless medical studies have concluded that playing too many video games can be harmful to one's health. Now, however, it turns out that one of the more popular video-game consoles on the market, the Xbox 360, could be used to save lives.

A computer scientist at the University of Warwick in England has devised a way to use an Xbox 360 to detect heart defects and help prevent heart attacks. The new tool has the potential to revolutionize the medical industry because it is both faster and cheaper than the computer systems that are currently used by scientists to perform complex heart research.

The system, detailed in a study in the August edition of the Journal of Computational Biology and Chemistry, is based on a video-game demo created by Simon Scarle two years ago when he was a software engineer at Microsoft's Rare studio, the division of the U.S.-based company that designs games for the Xbox 360. Scarle modified a chip in the console so that instead of producing graphics for the game, it now delivers data tracking how electrical signals in the heart move around damaged cardiac cells. This creates a model of the heart that allows doctors to identify heart defects or conditions such as arrhythmia, a disturbance in the normal rhythm of the heart that causes it to pump less effectively.

"This is a clever use of a processing chip ... to speed up calculations of heart rhythm. What used to take hours can be calculated in seconds, without having to employ an extremely expensive, high-performance computer," Denis Noble, director of Computational Physiology at Oxford University, tells TIME.

To create a heart model now, researchers must use supercomputers or a network of PCs to crunch millions of mathematical equations relating to the proteins, cells and tissues of the heart, a time-consuming and costly process. Scarle's Xbox system can deliver the same results at a rate five times faster and 10 times more cheap, according to the study.

"These game consoles aren't just glorified toys. [They] are pieces of very powerful computing hardware," Scarle says. "I can see this ... being most useful for students and early-career scientists to just quickly and cheaply grab that extra bit of computing power they otherwise wouldn't be able to get."

Scarle attributes his breakthrough creation to his unusual background of working as a software engineer in the gaming industry and performing electrocardio-dynamics research at the University of Sheffield in England. The idea for the heart-modeling tool came from a "little shooter game" he developed at Microsoft in which a player trys to gun down enemies in an arena meant to resemble a heart.

"I did a game-ified version of my old cardiac code. I could actually present some 'proper' science [based on] the cool things us game developers do," Scarle says.

The Xbox 360 isn't the only video-game console that is being used for scientific research. At the University of Massachusetts campus in Dartmouth, scientists are using Sony PlayStations to simulate black-hole collisions to try to solve the mystery of what happens when a supermassive black hole swallows a star.

So perhaps parents shouldn't be too worried if their children are spending an inordinate amount of time playing video games. Who knows, today's Grand Theft Auto or Halo addict may end up discovering a new moon around Saturn or finding a cure for cancer.