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VR Game Ties Depression To Brain Area 94

Posted by Zonk
from the get-out-of-my-head dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Science Daily is reporting that scientists are using a VR videogame that challenges spatial memory as a new tool to map out depression in the brain. 'Spatial memory' is how you orient yourself in space and remember how to get to places in the outside world. Researchers have found that depressed people performed poorly on the video game compared, suggesting that their hippocampi (where spatial memory is based) were not working properly."
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VR Game Ties Depression To Brain Area

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  • by biocute (936687) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @06:50PM (#18200346) Homepage
    Except some people got into depression after being constantly sworn at, TKed and ambushed at spawn point.
    • by Eberlin (570874) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @07:13PM (#18200674) Homepage
      d34r pwn3d d00d,

      j00 h4v3 n0 r16h7 2 1iv3 n3m0r3 c0z u 5ux0rz. P1z b3 r37urn1n6 2 ur 5p4wn p01n7 s0 1 c4n fr4g ur 5ry 455 s0m3 m0r3. lol, 1uz3r th0u6h7 h3 w4s 1337! pwn3d!

      Now I'm not sure which is more depressing -- the dude who gets spawncamped or the fact that I just went 1337speak for a few lines. If you need me, I'll be sulking in the corner with Marvin. If I can FIND the corner. I'm SO depressed.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by RobbieGee (827696)

        d34r pwn3d d00d,

        j00 h4v3 n0 r16h7 2 1iv3 n3m0r3 c0z u 5ux0rz. P1z b3 r37urn1n6 2 ur 5p4wn p01n7 s0 1 c4n fr4g ur 5ry 455 s0m3 m0r3. lol, 1uz3r th0u6h7 h3 w4s 1337! pwn3d!

        Translation to english for those that do not speak "1337":

        Dear owned dude,

        You have no right to live anymore because you suck. Please return to your spawn point so I can frag your sorry ass some more. Lol, loser thougth he was leet! Owned!

        Now I'm not sure which is more depressing -- the dude who speaks leet in 2007 or the fact t

  • ...And for all of you who have really boring classes:

    "Teacher, I'm feeling depressed! Can I go play video games?"

  • by Nalanthi (599605) <bhunter855.gmail@com> on Thursday March 01, 2007 @06:51PM (#18200376)
    When I get depressed it seems to have no effect on my ability to play FPS games and navigate the maps. Many of my friends marvel at my ability to play a map once and have my routes down. Indeed, much or my experience playing these games was while not attending class due to depression.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      The connection seems not to be borne out in reality, after all, if depression made people unable to navigate, how would emo people find their corner to cry in?
    • by dfedfe (980539)
      not depression as in "aw, I feel sad today"

      depression as in "I've been depressed for the past 4 months..."

      it takes more than a day for hippocampal volume to reduce, and thus to reduce spatial memory.. also, it is very likely the two have different underlying mechanisms (occasional sadness vs. clinical depression)
  • Could it be.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ArcherB (796902) * on Thursday March 01, 2007 @06:55PM (#18200434) Journal
    Researchers have found that depressed people performed poorly on the video game...

    Maybe they just don't give a shit!

    "Oh, why bother."
    • by Moraelin (679338) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @07:51PM (#18201080) Journal
      That's what I was wondering too. This whole experiment reminds me of a joke: a scientists puts a flea under on a piece of paper and shouts "JUMP!". The flea jumps. The scientist cuts the flea's legs, puts it back on the same piece of paper and shouts "JUMP!" The flea doesn't jump. The scientist concludes, "When you cut a flea's legs, it become deaf."

      And here's why:

      1. I'm guessing they didn't take experienced FPS players, but people who had to get past a learning curve. Some probably not even interested in that game, or that kind of game in the first place. I.e., people for whom it was basically work, and who had to learn for that work. I can tell you first hand that being depressed and/or demotivated can impact both work and learning _majorly_.

      Sorry, every game has a learning curve, even some you'd think are the most intuitive things and made by the greatest designers. Yet get a non-gamer at the keyboard and you might get an enlightening experience. We've had decades of getting the basic notions and reflexes hammered into our heads, they didn't. Someone else once compared it to a "game grammar". We know it, and even tutorials assume that we already know it. Non-gamers have to learn it from scratch.

      I'd expect the problems to be worse in some game designed by psychologists with zero game design background.

      So, at any rate, they're asking those people not only to play a game, but likely for most of them it's asking them to learn how to play an experimental game. And it'll be a lot of learning, and a lot of concentration and learning involved. In some cases it will take a lot of willpower to get past that learning curve, if it gets into the frustrating range.

      Do I expect someone in their darkest depression to make that effort and muster the concentration? Nope. "Oh, why bother." is pretty much the attitude I'd expect there.

      2. It's also worth mentioning that depression isn't just some abstract mood, but brings with it a lot of bad thoughts. It's not just some abstract mood indicator, but a shit-coloured set of glasses that tints (and taints) all perceptions, experiences and expectations. (Including those about the games, but also RL stuff.) So those people are not just abstractly "depressed", but people who've had a heck of a lot of bad and depressing experiences lately, and got disappointed a lot lately, by sheer virtue of that depression tainting their perceptions of it all. They'll tend to think about it a lot.

      So if the spatial orientation game requires lots of memorizing routes and such, there'll be inherently less mental power available for that. Where a "normal" person might think "ah-ha, I have to go through the corridor on the left to get back", the depressed one may well be thinking "what a piece of crap, I bet I'll get passed for promotion again, and I bet everyone is gossipping about me behind my back too. Why the heck do I even bother? I might as well kill myself now."

      Even if they might take refuge in gaming, they'll require a game that can basically turn off those thoughts, or thinking completely. Something which is simple and captivating, and doesn't require much thinking. Definitely not something which requires complex thought on its own.

      3. Or, if you will, 2b: motivation. Remember that we're talking people which are already depressed and tend to perceive everything as worse than it already is, including any goals and rewards in the game, and including the payoff of any long term plan. So if the game isn't immediately rewarding and fun, their motivation will sink much faster than everyone else's. If you make them do something as boring and pointless as just jumping and running through a maze, it will just be perceived as even more boring and pointless. If it requires long term memorizing and planning, the distant reward for it better be extremely worth it, or since it'll be perceived as (A) less of a reward, and (B) as a plan likely to fail anyway. And if that perception drops below a certain point, they'll be too demotivated to try h
      • by dfedfe (980539) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @08:05PM (#18201210)
        Based on the paper at http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/1 64/3/516 [psychiatryonline.org] I can sort of address these points..
        (all quotes are from the paper)

        1. Correct, no experienced FPS players: "Given a likely relationship between familiarity with video games and the outcome measure, individuals reporting high expertise in video games were excluded"

        I am probably not free to copy the whole paragraph about the program, but here's the gist: The program was a virtual reality town. On day 1 subjects got 20 minutes of orientation then 30 minutes navigating around the town to destinations selected by the computer. Their ability to find specific locations was then tested, and if they didn't perform well they got 30 more minutes of practice.
        Three days later they got 20 minutes to get used to the program again. Two to four hours later their memory of locations in the town was tested (they were tasked to navigate to a new set of locations, different from the specific destinations used on day 1).

        Keep in mind this is not a game (despite ./'s title), it is just a virtual navigation task. They don't say, but I expect it was just using arrow keys to move around the virtual town. Not much learning curve.

        2. They didn't have to memorize many routes. The whole virtual city (from the figure they show) is basically a big, curved X shape with maybe 2-3 other side roads in total. They just had to learn the basic set up of the town so they could go back to a location when asked to.

        Regarding the "less mental power", the depressed subjects performed just as well as healthy controls on a spatial working memory task. The distinction is important: the game task tests navigation memory learned over more or less 2-3 days (plus the short refresher on the day of testing), working memory involves manipulating things online. If anything, the latter is probably more challenging (I could be wrong, though, I haven't done the two tasks myself).

        3. I dunno, 30 minutes of testing doesn't seem like long enough to really reduce motivation. They must be somewhat motivated in the first place, though, to even show up for the two days of testing.
        • Still, I'm talking from experience. I've been through an episode of depression and demotivation, and I've been known to throw games away in half an hour because I couldn't be arsed to even learn stuff like using the handbrake in an arcade racing game. I can assure you that 30 minutes is _plenty_ to lose motivation in that situation. And 2-3 days is plenty to have your mind occupied with other things, instead of the route you learned yesterday.

          Regarding "less mental power", that was maybe the wrong word, but
          • As someone who is diagnosed with clinical depression, I completely concur with you. I would also like to extend your statement a bit. It doesn't take much at all to really throw me down into the dumps, and takes me a while to get back up to a really functioning level again.

            When I am at my worst, besides the constant bad thoughts kicking in, even when I am trying to focus on an actual task, it's like there's this fog clouding over my thinking. It's like my IQ has dropped a few dozen points or something.
        • I am probably not free to copy the whole paragraph about the program, but here's the gist

          Dude, you're on the internet, you can do anything. Just make sure to tick the 'post anonymously' box.

          (Perhaps what I should have done right now, but whatever)
      • by geekoid (135745)
        It's a spatial test, nothing more. It's not a game at all.

        People who perform poorly in spatial tests may have a problem with the hippocampus.
        People who suffer from depression* have problems with the hippocampus.

        *not being depressed about something, but suffering from depression.

        • by Moraelin (679338)
          I a sense, when you suffer from depression, you're also automatically depressed about something or about a lot of somethings. As I was saying, depression isn't something that stays isolated, like say a bruise or an abcess. It taints your very perception, experiences and expectations of the world and the events around you. It's, if you will, more like being colour blind: everything you see around you is changed by that condition, and different from what a normal person sees. So events and situations which to
    • by pinkstuff (758732)
      My sentiments exactly. Also, often illness such as chronic fatigue can cause depression AND poor memory all round, not just spatial.
    • Spatial memory is probably like the rest of the brain--exercising it helps. How frequently do these depressed folk explore new areas? As in, new physical locations? Compare that to a control group.
    • by zuiraM (1027890)
      Actually, it's simpler than that.

      Depression causes a general, progressive decline in cognitive and (later) psychomotor function.

      This decline slowly starts to reverse after remission has been achieved.

      My therapist did research on this, and the results are pretty conclusive.

      Trying to link depression to a hippocampal function phenotype might go places, but I seriously doubt it. And their study appears to essentially not be properly equipped to differentiate general decline in CNS function from anything related
  • Here's the abstract (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 01, 2007 @06:55PM (#18200440)

    The actual research was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Here's the abstract:

    OBJECTIVE: Findings on spatial memory in depression have been inconsistent. A navigation task based on virtual reality may provide a more sensitive and consistent measure of the hippocampal-related spatial memory deficits associated with depression. METHOD: Performance on a novel virtual reality navigation task and a traditional measure of spatial memory was assessed in 30 depressed patients (unipolar and bipolar) and 19 normal comparison subjects. RESULTS: Depressed patients performed significantly worse than comparison subjects on the virtual reality task, as assessed by the number of locations found in the virtual town. Between-group differences were not detected on the traditional measure. The navigation task showed high test-retest reliability. CONCLUSIONS: Depressed patients performed worse than healthy subjects on a novel spatial memory task. Virtual reality navigation may provide a consistent, sensitive measure of cognitive deficits in patients with affective disorders, representing a mechanism to study a putative endophenotype for hippocampal function.
  • yep (Score:4, Funny)

    by User 956 (568564) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @06:56PM (#18200462) Homepage
    'Spatial memory' is how you orient yourself in space and remember how to get to places in the outside world. Researchers have found that depressed people performed poorly

    That's because in space, nobody can hear you scream.
    • by Tackhead (54550)
      > > 'Spatial memory' is how you orient yourself in space and remember how to get to places in the outside world. Researchers have found that depressed people performed poorly

      Thanks to time travel, am now 37 times older than the Universe itself. Thanks to having a brain the size of the planet, I remember every place I've been in space. Spatial awareness hasn't helped me one bit.

      Would you like to hear about how long I spent in the car park at Milliway's? (The first ten million years were the wo

    • by Dunbal (464142)
      That's because in space, nobody can hear you scream.

            But look on the bright side: In space, you can't hear anybody scream...
  • Well, duh.. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hindumagic (232591) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @06:57PM (#18200476)
    I'm sure that most people have noticed that they don't seem to do as well when they're feeling down. I would try to cheer up by playing a game, but my gameplay would suck, which would further reinforce my annoyed, crappy feeling. A vicious circle.

    And the opposite works for me as well - if I'm feeling positive and happy, my perception is that I'm doing better than usual. It's been a while now since I don't play games that often anymore, but I'm pretty sure that it wasn't just my perception, and that I really would do better. Better reaction times, faster decisions, and better outcomes.
    • you can't play a game, distract yourself or even "think" yourself out of it - rather like expecting a drunk to become sober by performing some task or "think" themselves sober.

      Of course, if the game takes long enough, it could be somewhat distracting while the effects of depression work themselves out. The equivalent there would be our drunkard concentrating on some task until they were sober.

      • by modecx (130548)
        If the problem is really depression . . . you can't play a game, distract yourself or even "think" yourself out of it - rather like expecting a drunk to become sober by performing some task or "think" themselves sober.

        And why not? We humans have to think of something before it can happen, you know.

        Maybe depressed and drunk people just aren't very good at thinking, and everyone else who was previously depressed or drunk at one point have already convinced themselves that they weren't inflicted by these prob
  • by ifakemyadd (1070340)
    It seems important to make clear that it is most likely the depression which is causing the measured effect here. This is likely, as Depression generally affects a person's ability to fully perform a variety of tasks. This research seems only to confirm that notion.
  • by grassy_knoll (412409) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @07:06PM (#18200576) Homepage
    From TFA:

    Thus, the video game is a more revealing measure of spatial memory and a more sensitive measure of hippocampal dysfunction -- a more powerful tool for exploring the link between the hippocampus and depression. It may one day be a tool for detecting hippocampus deficits in depressed patients.


    Emphasis mine.

    I'd like to see an objective rather than subjective test for depression.

    If nothing else, an objective test would be useful in convincing potential patients ( and those who care about them ) that the potential patient has depression, rather than just "feels bad" [1]. The results of, say, a blood test vs. the responses on a questionnaire.

    This seems like a step in the right direction, but also still seems subjective.

    [1] Yes, I know severe depression looks a lot worse than someone who just "feels bad", but if someone is spending hours/days in the fetal position crying, that's kind of a hint. Thinking of detecting depression before it gets that bad.
    • I'd like to see an objective rather than subjective test for depression

      Well the problem here is that we are talking about a condition that is defined by subjective feelings. If I have some objective measure that you are depressed, but you say that you feel great, how could I be right? Also, it's much cheaper and faster to ask you how you feel rather than to perform an MRI .

      Also, while depression appears to be associated with hippocampal deficit, hippocampal problems could occur for a variety of reason

      • Also, it's much cheaper and faster to ask you how you feel rather than to perform an MRI

        Oh I agree, and as you point out a hippocampal deficit does not necessarily indicate depression.

        However, perhaps you might agree that a survey isn't the most precise tool for diagnosing an illness?

        After all, as others have pointed out, a person with depression might not answer the survey honestly ( ex: meh... I don't care, so I'll tell them what they want to hear so they'll leave me alone ).

        Something like a blood test wo

      • by mahniart (909168)
        Can anyone link to an article that shows that an MRI can be used for a clinical diagnosis of either a major depressive episode or major depressive disorder? Example, some structural change in the hippocampus or amgydala? I haven't seen that, but prior posts seem to claim a MRI would be useful for diagnosis. Even if fMRIs show differences between those with clinical depression and no mood disorder, can anyone link to an article showing that an individual fMRI scan is useful as a diagnostic tool?
        • No, this absolutely cannot be done at this time. I believe the discussion was hypothetical.
        • by zuiraM (1027890)
          Here you go.

          http://amenclinics.com/bp/atlas/ch7.php [amenclinics.com]

          That's SPECT, not MRI, but it shows this stuff pretty clearly. Compare with some of the other stuff there if you like.

          You will not see structural changes. You will, however, see differences in metabolic activity, etc.

          And, yes, these can be used as a diagnostic tool, as well as an aid in selecting proper medication to deal with the problem, which will often be necessary by the time you get such a scan.
      • by zuiraM (1027890)
        The condition is not defined by subjective feelings. Have a look at some SPECT scans, for instance.

        Subjective feelings are frequently employed in making a diagnosis, however.

        There are specific alterations in neurotransmission patterns, glucose metabolism, and other objective, measurable features of central nervous system function. And there are measurable psychomotor and cognitive deficits that develop over time.

        Also, the animal models generally reflect a set of fairly objective behavioural features that we
    • by dr.badass (25287)
      If nothing else, an objective test would be useful in convincing potential patients ( and those who care about them ) that the potential patient has depression

      Indeed, this is one of the major problems with all mental disorders. It results in a combination of over-diagnosis by incompetent or greedy doctors, self-diagnosis by internet hypochondriacs, parents that want "stable" children, and legitimately ill people that are told to "snap out of it" by family and friends. In all it makes a mess of the mental
      • by mahniart (909168)
        Here are the DSM IV criteria for a major depressive episode: Some are objective (weight change and sleep pattern disturbance): A. Five (or more) of the following symptoms have been present during the same 2-week period and represent a change from previous functioning; at least one of the symptoms is either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure. Note: Do note include symptoms that are clearly due to a general medical condition, or mood-incongruent delusions or hallucinations. (1) depres
        • by dr.badass (25287)
          Here are the DSM IV criteria...

          Oh, I'm quite familiar with them :(

          I think the DSM, as the basis of diagnosis is illustrative of the problem I was talking about. It's accurate in proportion to the skill of the observer; the most objective criteria tend to be the least indicative, and the most indicative are most subjective. The latter especially means that they can easily be denied, ignored, or even faked by a patient, and easily overlooked by family and friends.

          It's not really a knock against the DSM as a
    • by zuiraM (1027890)
      There are objective tests. SPECT, for instance.

      Have a look at the Amen Clinic pages. They show SPECT images of patients with various mental problems, including depression. Also, they identify several characteristic types of depression, based on the SPECT findings, that respond to different classes of drugs.

      The most visible depressions to someone "on the outside", are light depressions (when the mood features are dominant, and there is still energy to bitch about it) and severe depressions with psychotic fea
      • Well, the SPECT test you mention seems a bit... erm... contraversial.

        http://www.quackwatch.org/06ResearchProjects/amen. html [quackwatch.org]
        • by zuiraM (1027890)
          Yeah. I know that. Which it also states on the website itself.

          In fact, a lot of stuff in psychiatry is controversial.

          Oddly enough, low-efficacy drugs (SSRIs), zero-efficacy therapy (non-CBT psychology), etc. isn't.

          As for the site you quoted, they seem to be missing a few vital points.

          For instance, they are criticizing the technology as being experimental. No-one is arguing against that. Call him an "early adopter". Field use in clinical practice is the only way to get research done that is targeted at clini
  • by MS-06FZ (832329)
    It was actually quite accidental. First they put their gardener, Jobe, into the VR machine. When he got out, they asked how he felt - he said he was feeling a little depressed. One of the researchers made an off-hand comment about how he hated feeling down, and wished the causes of depression could be isolated. Then Jobe told 'em it was part of the hippocampi.
    • OK, if you wanted to mod that "offtopic" or whatever, I could understand. But how exactly is a Lawnmower Man reference "redundant" in a story about VR?
  • Maybe their game can detect depression, but by posting an article about a videogame on Slashdot and not including a download link (or at least a vendor), you're gonna *cause* angst and depression!

    <whine>I wanna plaaaaaay!</whine>
    • Yeah, I wouldn't mind seeing how I'd compare at it. C'mon, can some l33t g00gl3 h3xOrs please post urls? :)
  • Researchers have found that depressed people performed poorly on the video game compared, suggesting that their hippocampi (where spatial memory is based) were not working properly."

          Hello??? People with depression perform poorly at JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING. I call BS...
    • from the article:
      "Earlier studies showed that people with mood disorders tend to have smaller hippocampi than nondepressed people. Other studies showed that depressed people have memory problems. This study strengthened the evidence of a link between the hippocampus and depression by showing that people with hippocampus dysfunction -- as revealed by spatial memory problems detected by the new video game -- are more likely to be depressed."

      the video game helps determine if they have a problem with spatial me
    • by Sperbels (1008585)
      Not necessarily. I find my creativity is greatly enhanced when I'm depressed. Unfortunately, It's harder to put that creativity to work when I'm depressed.
  • by spectecjr (31235) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @07:28PM (#18200824) Homepage
    The hippocampus doesn't only handle spatial memory... it's also the store for contextual memory. (It takes longer to develop than the amygdyla, which is why most people don't remember much of their early childhood years). Given that most depression / psychological problems that aren't hardware in nature appear to be due to a mismatch between contextual memory and the limbic brain's emotional memory that the brain needs to learn to resolve, maybe this isn't much of a surprise.

    Although it might explain why eye movement can be used in therapy to reprogram people's responses to trauma.
    • Hey, that sounds about right. Now I understand why during the last year I could not remember, without great effort, what had I done the previous days. My spatial memory didn't seem to be affected, but that's probably because I've always been great at that, and not so much at recalling events.

      This calms me much, as I was beggining to think that it could be something more agresive.
  • Anyone seeding this game?
  • Researchers have found that depressed people performed poorly on the video game compared, suggesting that their hippocampi (where spatial memory is based) were not working properly.

    Or maybe depressed people just hasn't tried hard enough to play the game? Or maybe depressed people are under influence of some drug that makes the game harder to them? Or...

    This type of conclusion remembers me the joke of the scientist that put an spider on the table and knocks on the table. The spider runs away. Then, he

    • by dfedfe (980539)
      The depressed patients did just as well as the healthy controls on a spatial working memory task, plus they actually showed up to the test in the first place (as I mentioned in a different comment), which both suggest that the patients were actuall motivated to perform the task.

      The research paper this press release is based on also makes clear that all the subjects had been off medication for 4 weeks (give or take, I don't recall exactly).

      Slashdotters seem to have very little respect for the research and pe
      • by nfgaida (68606)
        Slashdotters seem to have very little respect for the research and peer-review system that papers have to go through to be published.

        I'd say that this behavior isn't limited to slashdotters. I've seen this type of behavior in the american population at large. (haven't had experience in other cultures)

  • This story is really depressing. I think I'll go cap some noobs.

    Damn, I missed.
  • 1 did you enjoy playing the game?
    2 did you get a sense of accomplishment from achieving the game tasks?
    3 would you rather have just stayed in bed?

    I kind of doubt spatial awareness problems are linked with depression, like alot of people here my instinctual reaction was, "perhaps the depressed people would rather not be doing this?"

    I suffer from clinical depression and I know that when I'm having a bad day. I can barely get it together to read a book. let alone be bothered playing video games.
  • I actually came to this conclusion the other day, after performing exceptionally poorly at Day of Defeat. I realized that this was a pattern with me - that when I'm depressed, I just don't do as well. And I also realized why. I wasn't concentrating on the game. I was instead thinking about the things that were making me depressed in the first place. Stress at home, stress from work, feelings of helplessness, all that stuff. The internal running commentary that says "you suck, you wanker" that gets turned on
  • Being depressed, and discouraged, they didn't give a fuck about playing well.
  • The abstract says that the task was a hippocampal-related spacial memory task (since it had a delay between initial learning and recall). Does the full article rule out a prefrontal cortex impairment that has an impact on tasks that involve executive control? Was some form of imaging used (such as fMRI) to help localize the deficit rather than basing it on the nature of the task? (I don't have access to the full article)
  • by Chacham (981)
    Researchers have found that depressed people performed poorly on the video game

    I have found that depressed people perform poorly, period.

  • by zyl0x (987342)
    Maybe they just didn't feel like playing video games?
  • >Researchers have found that depressed people performed poorly on the video game compared,
    >suggesting that their hippocampi (where spatial memory is based) were not working properly."

    I think it suggests they were so depressed they didn't give a shit about playing the game. :)

    Steve

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