Can Video Games Treat Conditions like Dementia and Depression?


Exclusive Interview with: Adam Gazzaley

World-class neuroscientist and neurologist, Dr. Adam Gazzaley is working to turn video games and other technology into medical treatments for conditions like dementia, depression, and pediatric ADHD. He teaches neurology, physiology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and is the Founder and Executive Director of Neuroscape, a UCSF state-of-the-art neuroscience center where he and his team are pioneering an entirely new field of medicine – digital medicine.

Every aspect of how we now interact with our environment, each other and ourselves has been radically transformed by technology due to its facilitation of unprecedented storage, access and sharing of information.

SPEAKING.COM: What are some major ways the high tech world we live in is affecting our cognitive abilities?

GAZZALEY: Every aspect of how we now interact with our environment, each other and ourselves has been radically transformed by technology due to its facilitation of unprecedented storage, access and sharing of information. The negative influence of this information load extends to our attention, perception, memory, decision making, and emotional regulation. This, in turn, manifests in many ways in the real world; for example, associations exist between the use of information technology and rising rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, and attention deficits.

SPEAKING.COM: Why can’t we multitask?

GAZZALEY: When we are engaged in more than one task, our brain does not parallel process the cognitive demands, but rather switches between activated networks associated with each of the tasks. With each switch, there is a performance cost.

The idea was to create a personalized and targeted experience to maximally harness the brain’s innate plasticity to improve its function.

SPEAKING.COM: How did you arrive at the idea to explore video games as a means of boosting brain function?

GAZZALEY: I had become frustrated with the suboptimal benefits, and high level of side effects, that are generated by our siloed approach of relying on pharmaceuticals to remediate deficient cognitive abilities. The idea was to create a personalized and targeted experience to maximally harness the brain’s innate plasticity to improve its function.

I believed this could be accomplished by using modern digital media and advances in software and hardware. Delivering the experience in the form of a video game made sense because this would lead to deep engagement and sustained compliance in the experiential treatment.

SPEAKING.COM: What conditions could be treated with video games?

GAZZALEY: There are no conditions that are currently being treated by neurologists and psychiatrists for which Digital Medicine should not be at least considered.

SPEAKING.COM: How does treating these conditions by playing these games compare to treating them through pharmaceuticals?

GAZZALEY: Our treatments are more precisely targeted to the brain’s neural networks that underlie the cognitive abilities we are attempting to improve, which in turn leads to lower side-effects. They are also more personalized to the individual’s brain due to the game’s closed-loop algorithms. We can also prevent overdose and more effectively track treatment compliance using software. Ultimately, I believe we will show that Digital Medicine is also more accessible to people in need on a global scale compared to Pharmaceutical Medicine.

SPEAKING.COM: Could you describe how the video games you use in your experiments differ from games you’d find on the commercial market right now?

GAZZALEY: Our therapeutic games are differentiated by the target, the delivery system, and the level of validation compared to currently available commercial games aimed at entertainment. Our games involve rapid, closed-loop adaptive systems so that they are always personalized to the individual playing and to their abilities at that moment. We’ve also tested our games in rigorous randomized controlled trials across multiple sites, and we include secondary outcome measures to test whether we see improvement in tasks in different contexts, not just in gameplay.

Our data suggests that we are able to increase the effectiveness and speed of engagement of specific neural networks involved in deploying attention.

SPEAKING.COM: What’s happening in people’s brains when they play the customized video games in your studies?

GAZZALEY: It depends on the game; they each have different “active ingredients.” In general, our data suggests that we are able to increase the effectiveness and speed of engagement of specific neural networks involved in deploying attention.

SPEAKING.COM: How often should people utilize therapeutic video games?

GAZZALEY: We do not know the precise answer to this question yet; this will involve many more years of research. But, our current studies demand our participants to engage in gameplay 3-5 days a week on sessions that range from 30-60 minutes for 6-8 weeks.

SPEAKING.COM: You believe your research also has implications for education. How could the technology you use be practically applied in a K-12 setting?

GAZZALEY: We are exploring how our technology can be used to both better understand the cognitive abilities (e.g., attention, memory, emotional regulation, decision-making, empathy) of young, developing minds and then use that data in an actionable way to improve those abilities through specific closed-loop video games.

SPEAKING.COM: Most of your research has focused on applying technology to boost brain function, but how do other activities like meditation and physical exercise help strengthen our cognitive abilities?

GAZZALEY: There are many life activities that do not require digital interactions that can also improve cognitive function; meditation and physical exercise are good examples of practices that have been shown to improve attention over time. I am now working on closed-loop video games that adapt aspects of these real-world exercises to make them more accessible and reproducible for many people.

To bring neuroscientist and healthcare technology speaker, Dr. Adam Gazzaley to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com

© SPEAKING.com, published on January 5, 2019

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