Clinical Trials for Games? Brain Games Based on Real Science

I normally listen to audiobooks in my car, but I had just finished one and hadn’t visited the library yet to check out another, so I had the radio on.

I caught the tail end of an NPR story about a game trying to get approved by the FDA, so I told my phone to remind me to look it up later.

Will Doctors Soon Be Prescribing Video Games for Mental Health? by April Dembosky was that story, and it talks about the many games that claim they are good for your brain but don’t have any real science to back it up.

I’m reminded of Nintendo’s Brain Age. In its official title is “Train your brain in minutes a day!”

In 2007, CNN’s Linnie Rawlinson wrote up her experience playing it, asking Can Nintendo’s ‘Brain Training’ really boost your little gray cells?. While she had fun playing it, she didn’t believe the claims. She asked a neuroscientist about it and was told that while it may help, it’s “hard to measure the impact that brain training could have.”

The NPR story refers to a very, very long letter signed by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists rejecting the claims:

In summary: We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.

One of those scientists decided it wasn’t enough to admonish game marketers and decided to try to create a brain game that would stand up to scientific rigor.

Neuroracer was the research developed by a team of neuroscientists and was specifically targeted at training cognitive control abilities. While it’s not commercially available, it did demonstrate how a game could actually help with cognitive ability.

Neuroracer was made for scientists as a research tool. Based on this technology, Project:EVO is the clinical product being created by Akili Interactive Labs. It’s been covered in many mainstream media outlets, but hardly at all in game press. I found one reference to Akili at Gamasutra, and it was a blog post by Noah Falstein on general neuroscience in games.

From the Akili Interactive Labs website:

Project: EVO platform is currently being tested in a variety of clinical studies in multiple patient populations around the globe, including ADHD, autism, depression, and traumatic brain injury.

It’s quite an ambitious endeavor. Adam Gazzaley, co-founder of Akili Interactive Labs, claims he has four other games in development if Project:EVO makes it through the gauntlet.

And with what Neuroracer demonstrated, perhaps there will be a growing market of science-based brain games that actually do help who they claim to help.

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