Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis: Could Video Games Help Treat Mental Illness? Research Suggests Yes (Audio)

Last week, a report surfaced about games that promote “brain fitness,” a market that merges neuro-science with games in hopes to address issues dealing with memory and mental health in ways that are engaging and effective. NPR’s “Morning Edition” ran a story about games that, by and large, claim to boost things like IQs, memory, and other mental processes but, as the episode presented, there are those who also argue that the $1-billion industry is based on claims that are “absurd.” Nevertheless, neuroscientists like Adam Gazzaley are attempting to bridge the science of mental health with the appeal of video games to expand our understanding of how the brain functions when engaged with that particular kind of technology.

Gazzaley is working on ” a fully immersive video game focused on multitasking,” which hopes to reap “benefits in other aspects of cognitive control.” Video games, he argues, can help researchers understand the cognitive capabilities in the human brain that overlap, because most video games depend on players’ ability to focus on several different tasks at once. “The networks that control the three classes of cognitive ability — working memory, attention and goal management — all overlap,” so if ability in one is hampered, performance in the others could suffer. Similarly, if one’s abilities in one field are improved, it follows that all three areas can improve.

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It’s that concept that NPR explored again earlier today, once again discussing the concept of video games and mental health on “Morning Edition.” While playing Project Evo, a game developed by start-up Akili, those who suffer cognitive disorders may be developing methods of healing, as the game addresses the same cognitive processes as those mentioned by Gazzaley. Project Evo is taking the process a step further, running clinical trials of the game with the goal of getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As Akili’s executive creative director Matt Omernick shared, “”We’ve been through eight or nine completed clinical trials, in all cognitive disorders: ADHD, autism, depression,” and with FDA approval, the game could be a pioneer in the commercial market for “designing games to treat mental health conditions.”

The results of the clinical trials have been promising, and Omernick and other researchers like him are hopeful that the results will convince the FDA to move forward with the approval process. In fact, the creators believe their game will be so effective “there will come a day when, instead of a pill, a video game might be prescribed to treat a kid with ADHD,” April Dembosky writes. The FDA approval process can take several years, leading those most directly involved with ideas like Project Evo to become concerned with the technology’s obsolescence. “The worst fear is that the technology will becomes outdated by the time the FDA process is complete. Tech companies are constantly redesigning their software to keep up with competition and consumer habits,” Dembosky shares.

The remainder of the insightful episode goes into the relationship between these kinds of medical projects and the Affordable Care Act. Also explored is how games like Angry Birds could translate success into medical research, and that games could remain models not only of financial profit, but also of major strides in medical research.

Are video games the next frontier in the world of mental health treatments? Technologies like virtual reality have been used as treatment for phobias and other cognitive disorders, so are projects like those spearheaded by Akili far fetched, or simply the next step in progress?

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