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Technology created to assist brain function

Katie Fitzpatrick, Executive Lifestyle Editor

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Senior Patrick Fitzharris plays “Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege,” an action video game, on his computer. He said action games have improved his reflexes. This has benefited him in other parts of his life, such as his work as an umpire. Photo by Richard Chu and Graphic by Ryan Matus

Shoulders hunched, back tight, senior Patrick Fitzharris leans toward the focus of his fixed gaze: a video game. Fitzharris was competing in a tournament for an action video game which is a genre that, as recent studies have shown, has the potential for cognitive benefits for those with and without neurodevelopmental disorders.

Eddie Martucci, CEO of Akili Interactive Labs, said in an email that Akili Interactive Labs, in partnership with Neuroscape, is in the process of creating a prescription video game that takes advantage of action video game characteristics to serve as a clinical treatment for pediatric Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADHD. The game, called AKL-T01, is currently in clinical testing and is on track to be available by prescription in late 2018.

C. Shawn Green, associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a phone interview that the research behind the project is sound, and the work just has to be implemented.

Green said action video games like first-person shooter games can improve certain mental skills as a result of unique characteristics of those games.

These are video games that have lots of fast motion,” said Green. “They require you to make very fast, accurate decisions, usually you have to keep track of multiple things at one time, and you have to monitor a wide field of view.”

Green said the benefits can range from improvements in a person’s ability to notice color contrast to increases in higher cognitive functions, such as the ability to switch between different tasks smoothly or the ability to perform several functions simultaneously.

According to Martucci, AKL-T01 specifically uses these action characteristics to target neural networks in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This part of the brain has been found to have a role in cognitive control and is deficient in people with ADHD.

Green said action video games enhance the frontal parietal network of the brain. This region connects the frontal and parietal lobes and is associated with mechanisms such as attention and decision making.

Fitzharris said he utilizes the benefits of his gaming in his job as an umpire.

“Being able to accurately call balls and strikes, … you have to be able to react quickly,” Fitzharris said.

According to Martucci, AKL-T01 stands apart as an effective treatment for ADHD over normal action video games because the game is designed specifically to address the particular region of the brain concerned in ADHD, and it adapts the level of brain stimulation personally to each user during and between uses. 

“This enables second-by-second monitoring of patient progress and continuously challenges each patient, so it is never too easy or too difficult, encouraging patients to improve their performance,” Martucci said.

For cognitive benefits with normal video games, Green said he recommends short, frequent video game sessions to maximize improvement, just as if a person were studying for a test. However, games like “Call of Duty” must challenge the brain in order to reap the benefits.

“Putting load on the [intended] system is kind of the way you get that system to develop,” said Green. “You kind of have to exceed its capacity to get it to improve.”

According to Martucci, AKL-T01 has the potential to benefit both the brains and the lives of youth affected by ADHD.

“For children with ADHD, inattention can cause many challenges both at school and at home,” said Martucci. “A treatment that can reduce a child with ADHD’s inattention holds the promise of improving their lives.”

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Technology created to assist brain function