ADHD affects nine percent of adolescents and 4.1 percent of adults in the United States, says the American Psychiatric Association. Many of them are on prescription medication to reduce the symptoms, which include difficulty paying attention and remaining focused. Two new start-up companies are developing video games to treat ADHD.
Akili Interactive Labs Inc. of Boston, Massachusetts, which was created by start-up-creating firm PureTech Ventures, and Brain Plasticity Inc. of San Francisco, California are seeking Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for a videogame treatment they hope physicians will recommend before prescribing medicines for ADHD.
The companies’ projects are based on research, which suggests that action videogames can sharpen players’ ability to concentrate, and may have other medical or health benefits. Last April, University of Toronto researchers reported that action videogame play causes improvement in “visual attention,” which is needed to drive a car or track changes on a computer display. In 2010, University of Rochester and University of Minnesota researchers found that action videogames can train individuals to make the right decisions faster.
If proven effective, physician-prescribed video games could treat neurological illnesses without exposing patients to the side effects seen with today’s medications such as Ritalin. Psychotherapy and medication can reduce ADHD symptoms; however, the side effects of stimulants, the most widely used medicines, can include decreased appetite, sleep problems, anxiety and irritability. These companies face an uphill battle because the FDA has never approved a video game as a medical therapy. Furthermore, despite their side effects, today’s ADHD medicines generally are well tolerated and effective.
Akili co-founder Eddie Martucci, PhD noted that his company’s research shows that people want choices other than today’s powerful medicines. He explained, “We would aim to have efficacy and tolerability that outstrips any of the drugs. Dr. Martucci is part of a team of PureTech entrepreneurs that forms start-ups with new approaches to medical and research problems. Approximately two years ago, they began looking for ways to treat neurological disease without drugs or invasive procedures. This led them to the field of video game research, where researchers were discovering correlations between videogame skill and cognitive functions.
The PureTech team was particularly interested in the work of Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester and Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco, who were studying how the brain processes information that is relevant to a task and blocks out distractions. Dr. Bavelier discovered that players of fast-paced, action video games outperform non-gamers in their visual-attention skills, or the ability to concentrate visually on an object while ignoring irrelevant information. Visual attention is important for tasks such as driving or picking a friend’s face out of a crowd.
Because of mounting research, which suggested that neurological benefits are a byproduct of recreational, action-game play, PureTech partnered with Dr. Bavelier and Dr. Gazzaley to design videogames that stimulate parts of the brain in ways that could be medically useful. To date, Akili has not disclosed how its game designed for smartphones and tablets is played; however, Dr. Gazzaley told The Wall Street Journal that it is designed to affect the prefrontal cortex—an area involved in goal-directed behavior—and visual and motor parts of the brain to strengthen the ability to concentrate and to ignore distractions. Akili has a neural-imaging study underway with its current game in healthy individuals and its clinical-pilot studies will begin shortly.
The other start-up, Brain Plasticity has launched clinical tests of computer-based exercises to treat schizophrenia and ADHD, noted Henry Mahncke, chief operating officer of Brain Plasticity and chief executive of San Francisco-based Posit Science Corp. Dr. Mahncke notes that Brain Plasticity is testing its “ADHD suite,” which comprises a set of 25 exercises designed to train the cognitive skills of alertness, attention, working memory, impulse control and suppression of distractions. For example, one attention exercise asks the trainee to pick out a sound that is distinct from a series of repetitive sounds that are all the same.
A potential problem for these companies is that action videogames appear to affect various types of attention differently; thus, raising the question of whether an ADHD game or computer exercise can be made to trigger desirable effects only. Another possible negative: a study of 3,034 children and adolescents in Singapore, published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, found videogame play to be associated with greater attention problems.
This page is updated on May 11, 2013.