Can Prescription Video Games Improve Cognitive Function?

Brain training games

Can games help you train your brain? The jury is out, but several groups of scientists and startups are hard at work trying to prove that they can. This week Lauren Goode at The Verge reported on three of them, and on the controversy of prescription video games.

Brain training games have been the subject of controversy for awhile. Back in 2014, a group of 69 researchers and scientists published an open letter arguing against the efficacy of brain training games. Their basic point: “We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. . . . The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles.

Soon thereafter, a group of 120 researchers and scientists issued a dissent: “[P]ointing to a substantial and growing body of evidence shows that certain cognitive-training regimens can significantly improve cognitive function, including in ways that generalize to everyday life.

Neuroscape lab and Project: EVO

This brings us to the Boston tech company Akili, who has partnered with the University of California, San Fransisco’s Neuroscape lab to develop Project: EVO, a mobile game that may someday be a prescription-based video game powerful enough to treat children with ADHD. Just like any other kind of prescription, Project: EVO is going through the FDA process; right now they are in phase III clinical trials. If Akili and their game succeed, we will see a new kind of treatment—digital medicine—and the first video game in the US that you can get via prescription.

Goode went to the UCSF Neuroscape lab and met with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley whose work is part of the foundation for Project: EVO. At Neuroscape, Gazzaley and his team have spent 12 years testing video game technology for treatment of neurological disorders such as ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and even mood disorders like depression. Goode also got to playProject: EVO as well as the Body Brain Trainer from Neuroscape and a game that's still in development called Labyrinth.

Did she feel smarter when she was done? Reportedly no, but then again, playing a couple of times isn't the point. Like any other kind of brain training, it's about incremental improvements over time. When can we expect to see these games on the market?

Project: EVO is in Phase 3 clinical trials; according to the FDA, these last from one to four years typically and 25 to 30 percent of candidates move forward from this stage to Phase 4, the last stage. So it'll be a few years, in all likelihood, at least.

That doesn't mean they won't decide to allow other kinds of trials and use cases to proceed—and after all, it's “just” a video game, right? So even if it gets held up at the FDA, that may not be the end of the story.