A Boston company has created an Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder treatment with a video game delivery system. We hope this could be an effective alternative to conventional treatment.

When I was about five years old, I was diagnosed with ADHD.

Pretty soon after that, I began every day with a pill (and sometimes again halfway through the day). I hated that pill. Every time I took it I felt like a zombie.

Looking back, though I may not have liked the pill, I’m pretty grateful that it was available. Untreated, I was quite the wild child, but with treatment, I made straight A’s.

My experience isn’t atypical of those who grow up with ADHD, nor is ADHD all that atypical to begin with. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 237,000 children between 2-5 years of age were diagnosed with the condition in 2011-12 alone. What’s more, about 43% of those kids will have been given medication to help them focus.

But, focus for ADHD patients might not have to come in chemical form anymore. A Boston company called Akili Interactive Labs is offering a unique new solution for ADHD, and it takes the form of a video game.

Could ADHD treatments become fun? #Akili Interactive thinks so. #gamifyitClick To Tweet

Treating ADHD with a video game provides a different way to battle the condition. And since many kids love video games in the first place, it might be the first treatment that kids actually enjoy.

With all of the medical advances of the modern era, it’s good to see that we’re looking for non-chemical alternatives to such a widespread problem. I hated taking pills as a kid, and I hated their effect even more, but I understand their necessity as an adult.

Of course, if the pills become unnecessary in the future, I won’t complain one bit.

Let’s get into the game, shall we?

A Different way to Battle ADHD

On December 4th, Akili Interactive Labs reported that their late-state testing met its primary goal. Over four weeks, 348 children ranging from ages 8 to 12 showed significant improvements in measured attention and inhibition control using their unique video game.

The test was a milestone success for the game, which means that Akili is pretty close to achieving their goal of the first prescription video game.

Now, you might wonder how a video game could have medical benefits. That’s certainly my first concern. As a kid, video games were one of the few things I could intensely focus on without medication. A game that could provide treatment would have been right up my alley.

According Akili CEO Eddie Martucci, “We are directly targeting the key neurological pathways that control attention and impulsivity.” Behind the veneer of a lava flow or an icy wonderland, Akili’s game uses targetted algorithms that have a direct effect on the brain.

“We have something that looks and feels and is delivered through a video game,” says Martucci, “but when someone’s using it, they’re getting a direct physiological activation that will lead hopefully—and we have a nice glimpse of data now—to cognitive and general clinical improvement.”

The Pros and Cons of Akili’s ADHD Game

While their testing has shown positive results, there are still concerns about its efficacy. For example, the test was measured subjectively by parents and physicians. On paper, there was improvement. However, in the eyes of those parents and doctors, children experienced the same amount of improvement whether they played Akili’s game or the placebo game used in the testing.

Another major concern is the lack of testing that goes head-to-head with more traditional, chemical treatments. So far, we don’t have any evidence that Akili’s game is any more or less effective than just taking a stimulant.

Given the concerns, it seems likely that Akili is going to need some impressive marketing if the FDA allows their treatment to enter the marketplace.

In my opinion, though, they won’t need that marketing forever. If the treatment stacks up well against the conventional pill, all they will need is testimony from doctors and patients. After all, video games are fun for kids, and side effects from a pill are not.

Out of the 348 kids that participated in the study, only 11 of them reported adverse effects like headaches and frustration. Those are some pretty mild side effects, and ones not exactly unfamiliar to kids.

Ultimately, we can’t be sure about Akili’s game until we see some real testing against conventional ADHD treatment. That said, it’s good to see some alternative treatments based on science.

Wanted: Better ADHD Treatments

As a neurotypical mental disorder, ADHD is connected to other conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That means that, as ADHD treatments get research, we may start to understand other conditions as well.

On a personal level, Akili’s approach makes sense. As anyone who has ADHD can tell you, the condition can be unpredictable. Sometimes you get a burst of hyper-focus. For me, that happens most often during writing and when playing video games.

There may be a trend forming in the medical field that mirrors Akili’s approach, as well. Back in September the FDA approved a mobile app by another Boston company, Pear Therapeutics. Pear’s app claims to be beneficial for certain substance use disorders, and it’s interesting to see how the Internet of Things is creeping into medicine.

So, if we’re lucky, we might soon see a generation of kids whose favorite video game is keeping some of them more focused in other parts of their life. If not, I think that Akili’s research will still be pretty useful in an educational sense.

Do you think a video game treatment is too farfetched for kids with ADHD?

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