Can video games treat cognitive disorders? : NPR


Screenshot of Neurogrow, which tests a patient’s memory and reaction time as an experimental treatment for cognitive decline.

Therapeutic Games and Applications Lab, University of Utah


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Therapeutic Games and Applications Lab, University of Utah


Screenshot of Neurogrow, which tests a patient’s memory and reaction time as an experimental treatment for cognitive decline.

Therapeutic Games and Applications Lab, University of Utah

The neurologist said Pam Stevens’ cognitive impairment could not be cured. After suffering a stroke in 2014, the 85-year-old was not responding to medication. She and her husband, Pete Stevens, were told to give up hope.

“On two separate occasions, over the course of two years, the neurologist said there was nothing we could do,” Pete Stevens said. “He told me just take her home and be prepared that she’s going to die.”

But he refused to accept this bleak prognosis. He was willing to try anything – including experimental video game therapy – to restore Pam’s brain.

Combat cognitive decline


Pete and Pam Stevens

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After a referral from her psychiatrist, Stephens finally reached out to Sarah Shizuko Morimoto and her lab at the University of Utah. Morimoto’s work focuses on cognitive disorders, particularly those related to brain aging such as senile depression and mental decline.

“My interest has always been in the intersection between mood and cognition, so how you think affects how you feel,” Morimoto said. “I’m starting to think ‘Can we improve the functioning of the brain’s circuits through our eyes instead of our ears?'” “

Enter Neurogrow: Morimoto’s garden video game is designed to target and improve the performance of neural circuits. They hope that the aging brain, when exposed to the program, will respond better to medications such as antidepressants.

Video games distract, entertain, and inspire. But Morimoto’s research begs the question: Can they heal?

More like exercising than playing


Sarah Shizuku Morimoto

Therapeutic Games and Applications Lab, University of Utah


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Therapeutic Games and Applications Lab, University of Utah


Sarah Shizuku Morimoto

Therapeutic Games and Applications Lab, University of Utah

Neuro Not a popular video game like Call of Duty or Animal Crossing. It has a primitive design that eschews sophisticated graphics and tells detailed stories for tasks that challenge an aging brain’s memory or reaction time. Someone playing Neurogrow may be presented with a particular colored flower and challenged to water it with the correct watering can before time runs out. For a brain unaffected by cognitive impairment, this task is likely to be easy, but memorization and timing can be daunting for patients like Pam Stevens.

“When you want to activate a specific part of the brain, you use something similar to the problems in the game,” Morimoto says. “When someone solves a problem, a specific part of the brain lights up. So we started there and played these tasks.”

According to Morimoto, her team games are not supposed to pull you in. In fact, Neurogrow is not fun at all.

“My games are designed to do something completely different to your brain,” she said. “It’s not designed so that you want to keep playing or spend more money on it. The things we’re asking patients to do are very difficult and very boring, and that’s exactly the thing that’s hard for them to do.”

It’s more exercise than play. When Pete Stevens was driving Pam home after the Neurogrow sessions, he noticed how exhausted she was.

“There were times when we weren’t even within a mile of Morimoto’s office, and she was sleeping in the car,” he said. “Other times, she would come home but then sleep for four hours. It was an emotional and physical drain.”

But Pam’s hard work paid off. After completing several sessions over the course of four months, Pete and her doctors noticed positive changes in Pam’s behavior. She was more social, more conversational, and Pete even mentioned that Pam was reading a book on dialectical behavior therapy before the interview call.

Other researchers believe Morimoto had lost her mind. Video games as a treatment for depression? It’s unheard of, especially in older adults, whose brains have gone through natural decline as part of aging.

“Very few people thought this would work,” Morimoto said. “They said it was impossible for me to be able to play a match And Get older patients to play it.”

But the federal government thought otherwise. Morimoto and her team received a $7.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct clinical trials for Neurogrow.

FDA approval of a video game

Neuro It’s not the only game that claims to treat brain health. EndeavorRx is a video game designed to treat ADHD in children. Seems to be a cross between the popular Subway Surfers app And Mario Kart. Developed by Akili Interactive, it became the first video game ever to gain FDA approval for ADHD in 2020.


Screenshot of EndeavorRX, a video game designed to treat ADHD in children.

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Screenshot of EndeavorRX, a video game designed to treat ADHD in children.

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While FDA approval sounds like the final seal of approval for a medicinal product, some researchers are skeptical. Talking to Washington PostClinical psychologist and researcher Russell Barclay described the game as a “marketing ploy”.

“Archaeology [of the game] Just don’t generalize, Barkley said, you get better at playing the game and anything similar to playing the game.

Rather than improving, say, a student’s test scores or reading comprehension, these critics say the child uses EndeavorRx You will only get better playing similar games like Subway Surfers mentioned above Or Temple Run.

But Eddie Martucci, CEO of Akili Interactive, says it could point to tangible results.

“I think the reason to be skeptical, and there is good reason for that, is that people have been burned by marketing gimmicks, especially in digital health and neuroscience,” Martucci said.

“Over time, the suspicion has dropped dramatically as we continue to research and bring up the data.”

It’s not easy to decipher whether or not games like Neurogrow or EndeavorRx work or have long-term benefits. Researchers are not always keen to reveal their findings, especially if it will reveal which game mechanics can be copied. But without outside verification, it’s hard to know if purported medical video games have merits.

“We can’t see the research around it,” said Anthony Bean, a clinical psychologist and video game researcher. “Sometimes the data looks garbled when we do this Could you I see it, but we’re also clueless with a convenient sample they’ve created to check out their game. “

But Neurogrow patients like Pam Stevens aren’t waiting for independent researchers to give their thumbs up. Nor were the investors – Akili Interactive went public and merged with Social Capital Suvretta Holdings Corp., pumping developer EndeavorRx about $412 million in total revenue.

Keller Gordon is a columnist for Join the game. Find it on Twitter: @ published