The future of ADHD treatment lies in drug-free BCI therapy
Presently, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is treated using a class of medications known as ‘stimulants’, which is the same drug class as substances like Cocaine and Crystal Meth. These medications are often administered to children as young as 3 years of age. Thanks to BCI technology, and companies like NeuroCog (creators of Focus Pocus game), and Freer Logic (the firm behind Play Attention), pharmaceutical ADHD treatment may soon be a thing of the past. In 2013 a new company, the Cambridge based Atentiv Inc will join the ADHD therapy market.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a psychiatric/neuro-behavioural disorder, which affects approximately 3-7 percent of children in the USA. It encompasses a wide range of symptoms, but is most often associated with levels of inattention and hyperactivity that interfere with one’s ability to do everyday tasks. Some theories have emerged as to what brain regions may be involved in causing these behaviours, but it’s still not fully known.
The result of this is that ADHD is difficult to diagnose and to treat, particularly in young children. However, leaving the disorder untreated often leads to decreased performance in school during childhood/adolescence, and difficulties working in adulthood. According to Atentiv founder and CEO Eric Gordon, the key to overcoming ADHD lies in “learning how to avoid distractions.”
Quite similarly to NeuroCog’s Focus Pocus software (read our test of the game), Atentiv’s treatment also puts users in a gaming environment that stops gameplay should they get distracted. As their ability to focus increases, so does the complexity of the game. Attentiveness is determined using a wearable electro-encephalography (EEG) headband that continuously monitors patterns of brain activation.
The success of this product hinges on two assumptions:
- The brain can modify its own neural connections with training and
- People like to play video games!
The first of these assumptions is supported by a large body of research. In fact, if this assumption weren’t valid, we would never be able to learn new skills. The brain’s connectivity is constantly changing based on new information. It’s even been demonstrated using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), that humans can learn to voluntarily regulate blood flow to specific regions of their brain. As for the second assumption, you need not look further than the success of the gaming industry. People love to game.
According to Eric Gordon, the user instantly learns that the moment they become distracted, the game will stop. The more the user pays attention, the faster they will move through the game.
“When you are able to concentrate and push distractions aside, you have success and the game becomes a little harder,” he added. “What you’re actually doing is creating new neural networks.”
“I think this is a tremendous breakthrough,” said New York psychiatrist Dr. Edward Hallowell, a leading authority in the field of ADHD who has been using Atentiv’s technology for several weeks as part of the on-going studies. “The results they’ve gotten in preliminary trials are pretty amazing; we’re testing this in my office now.”
Atentiv has received significant funding, including more than $10 million to help conduct large-scale clinical studies and develop a functional prototype of their system. The company recently closed on a round of funding to support its product launch in fall 2013 for elementary- and high school-age children diagnosed with ADHD.
This method of treatment of ADHD has already shown very promising results in the scientific community. A study published in October of this year showed that 8 weeks of training, 2 times per week in a gaming environment similar to that being released by Atentiv, significantly reduced both inattentiveness and hyperactivity (See right-hand figure).
Furthermore, the results of a previous study conducted by the same research group suggest that these improvements were present up to 3 months later!
Perhaps the best thing about this technology, however, is that its usefulness is not limited to helping those with ADHD. Anyone seeking to improve their ability to focus could benefit from it without the ethical ambiguities of using cognitive enhancement drugs.
Moreover, it paves the way for a really exciting class of video games in which the character’s ‘neurological state’ parallels that of the gamer… The possibilities are limitless.