Video games will compete with drugs as a form of medicine
Last summer, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley spent two months playing video games. For five days a week, he played Meditrain - which involves meditation and was developed in collaboration with Zynga - on his iPad, and another called Rhythmicity, which he developed with Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead, and Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation. "It's based on the hypothesis that our brain is a rhythmic machine," Gazzaley says.
"If we become more rhythmic, we improve coherence between brain areas and see a benefit on cognition." Gazzaley would also come into his laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco, at 7.30am three times a week to play Body Brain Trainer, a game that trains physical and cognitive fitness using motion capture.
"This project is very different from anything I have ever engaged in before," Gazzaley says. "It is my own exploration of a unique neurological CrossFit programme, or what in the lab we refer to as the Neuroman project. It gives me a unique view of being a participant in one of our studies, the games that I helped design and develop and, of course, an opportunity for me to see how many of my 46-year-old cognitive, physical and neural metrics I can push to a 20-year-old's level."
To track his progress, Gazzaley used MRI, EEG, stress tests, physical tests (from VO2 Max to vertical jump measurements), sleep tracking, saliva and blood analysis. The Neuroman project will not scientifically validate these games, but Gazzaley has ongoing randomised placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies that may. Gazzaley is also the co-founder of Akili Interactive, a Boston-based game company that developed Evo, a game that will soon start being clinically tested as part of the US Food and Drug Administration approval process on a clinical population of ADHD patients.
"We need to prove that this game has the same level of clinical efficacy as current pharmaceuticals," Gazzaley says.
That's his belief: in 2016, these games will be the first of a new class of fully digital medicine that can help us not only improve our brains but also treat conditions such as depression, traumatic brain injury, ADHD, dementia and autism.
At his Neuroscape laboratory, Gazzaley and his team not only design video games to activate and simulate specific brain networks but they also test them using a variety of measures: eye movement; EEG activity; skin responses; body movement; and heart rate variability.
"Brain performance data captured during gameplay is fed back into the game engine, so the game is adapted based on that information," Gazzaley says. "We also can take EEG data to guide transcranial stimulation of the brain.
"For 50 years, we've been trying to come up with drugs that improve cognition," Gazzaley says. "We don't have a single success story."
There are various reasons for such failure, he claims: chemical drugs can't target specific areas of the brain; they are not customised to the patient's genes; and they are open-loop, so they don't use feedback to determine if the goal has been achieved. Using video games, Gazzaley is designing a system to improve our brains that is personalised and closed-loop.