The world of video games is experiencing a pace of expansion never seen in its history. This growth is not only affecting the traditional entertainment industry, but it is also overwhelming sectors that were once completely immobile, if not even hostile, to the call of the joystick.
From home and gym training to hoteling, from school 2.0 to marketing, interactive applications seem to have no limits, with the last frontier just reached by Digital Medicine.
Maybe not for the flu, not for migraine and not even to lower cholesterol, but it seems that soon, much earlier than you might expect, even video games can be prescribed by doctors. Is this the ultimate defeat of the rhetoric of dangerous videogames, labeled as enemies of well-being and substantially harmful from every point of view? Maybe. Surely in California there are those who would be ready to bet on it.
Can video games help to treat neurological disorders?
Autism, depression, ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), Alzheimer's: what do these disorders have in common? Apparently not much. Yet, and you should have already learnt this as a child, judging by appearances is never a good idea.
Adam Gazzaley, founder and director of the Neuroscape Lab and professor of Neurology, Physiology and Psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco, is not only showing that there are more things in common among these disorders than it seems, but is also working on a further related project: the integration of video games in their treatment.
Gazzaley's work began with the observation of a recurring element: all the people affected by these disorders showed difficulties in their executive functions, that is, all those functions dedicated to planning and controlling behaviour, fundamental for monitoring and modifying behaviour in adapting to environmental conditions, and in processing cognitive interferences.
In addition, for sufferers of certain diseases, some attention skills are particularly complex, and there are no medicines that can effectively solve the problem, especially without side effects.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, "Ok, but what about video games?”.
From brain training to digital medicine
The team of scientists headed by Professor Gazzaley is working on the development of video games that would be able to improve cognitive functions. These are videogames that focus on the element of attention, with the aim of training and increasing the skills of selective attention, attention maintenance and rapid transfer of attention to different tasks.
According to the researchers, these videogames can be used to support the treatment of disorders under Gazzaley's studies. And certainly we cannot say that the plan is not ambitious: with the collaboration of the "prescription digital medicine company" from Boston, Akili Interactive, they are working to get these games the status of real drugs, creating a whole new category of digital medicine.
A video game as a medicine
But how can a videogame be used in medicine and, above all, act on the brain to improve its functions? In most cases, the joint stimulation of cognitive and physical skills is decisive: this is the element behind the Body Brain Trainer, a videogame that uses motion capture technologies to integrate cognitive and physical training into a single game environment.
Body Brain Trainer involves the three main aspects of cognitive control: attention, working memory and goal management, requiring players to respond to stimuli through the movement of the entire body. The hypothesis is that this will have a greater impact in increasing cognitive abilities than just physical exercise or brain training.
Rhythmicity is also based on the integration of movement and cognitive stimuli, a mobile cognitive training platform designed to teach rhythm in order to improve overall cognitive functions. The rhythm, as you can read in the presentation of the game, is a fundamental aspect of the functioning of the brain: from the rhythmic fluctuations typical of neural activity to the mechanisms of communication between different areas of the brain, rhythm has much to do with attention, perception and memory.
However, the most ambitious project of all is perhaps Project Evo, the evolution of Neuroracer, the first videogame for training cognitive functions born in Gazzaley's laboratory. While Neuroracer studies have shown cognitive improvements in attention levels and working memory in older adults after a month of regular play, Project Evo wants to go much further, aspiring to become a diagnostic tool for Alzheimer's disease and a treatment support for ADHD, depression, vascular dementia, autism and cranial trauma.
Only time can tell if Gazzaley and his team will win the bet of digital medicine or go down in defeat. Meanwhile, strong in the cover that Nature has dedicated to the extraordinary effects of Neuroracer, we can still be content to have an extra excuse to play video games.
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