Neurogaming to treat brain disorders

In the future, a video game can tell you if you suffer from ADHD, Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia.

An action video game which can diagnose the brain and then treat any disorder it discovers. Sounds like science fiction? While the actual product is still fantasy, this is a topic of intense research interest around the world.

One of the researchers in neurogaming is Matias Palva, a project leader at the Neuroscience Centre in Viikki. He gave a talk on the brain and gaming at the University of Helsinki Think Corner on Tuesday, 29 April.

Neurogaming can mean three different things: training a healthy brain, diagnosing brain disorders and treating such disorders.

Most of the excitement has focused on intensifying the experience of entertainment games through neurobiology, e.g., by using brain signals to control a video game.

This is not Palva’s area of interest.

– The brain was not designed to operate things; that’s what feet and hands are for, says he.

A calm or fickle brain?

However, video games could be useful in treating and diagnosing brain disorders.

– It’s possible to develop a game to diagnose almost any brain disorder, claims Palva.

It is a common misconception that brain activity is dependent on whether the person is doing something. Instead, the brain is constantly, independently active.

From this independent activity, people’s behaviour can be predicted.

– Some people’s brain will remain in one kind of state for a longer time, while the brain of others will flick from one state to the next. In our research we found that people whose brain remains in one state could focus on the research assignment for a longer period.

In most brain disorders, the brain operates in an abnormal way. By studying the state of the brain, researchers could find out if the patient has ADHD, schizophrenia, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, autism or clinical depression.

But currently, science has but a shaky understanding of which areas of brain activity can be measured.

Gaming improved vision

Promising steps forward have been taken, but currently no complete game has been accepted as a diagnostic tool.

– The chasm between neurobiological research and the expectations of the game industry is huge, says Palva.

Palva participated in the study of one treatment game. The recent clinical study examined the effects of gaming and pharmaceutical treatment on amblyopia, or “lazy eye”. This brain disorder is easily cured in childhood, but becomes permanent if no early treatment is available.

– The research subjects played a video game 30 minutes per day for ten weeks. This significantly improved the accuracy of their vision, he says.

Computer-based therapy is affordable

The primary benefit of using games for treatment is the price.

– They’re very affordable, since they don’t take up nursing staff or hospital facilities, says Palva.

Ideally the efficacy of games as treatment could surpass existing therapies, but Palva points out this is still a long way off.

Currently the game industry is a veritable Wild West with little regulation. A range of products are being marketed as neurogaming or neurobiological games. One popular marketing term is brain fitness, which is claimed to enhance the brain function of healthy people. Nevertheless, little evidence exists of such brain training games improving any skills outside of the challenges in the games themselves.

– You can’t get better at football by playing the violin, compares Palva.

The market also features games which claim to alleviate the symptoms of ADHD. Even though studies have indicated promising results for such games, other forms of therapy remain much more effective.

Action games for alertness

Despite his specific research interests, Palva has no objections to playing games for pleasure. Quite the contrary, he considers gaming to be beneficial. Action video games improve many cognitive skills as well as the accuracy of vision. Nonetheless, gaming should be done in moderation.

– The performance of active gamers is worse at school or university despite their improved memory, eyesight and accuracy. This, in turn, is because when they focus on a game, they spend all of their time on it, Palva explains.