Adam Gazzaley is building a repertoire of games that could one day help us reduce or even reverse the impact on our cognitive faculties of disorders such as Alzheimer’s, or deficits caused by brain trauma. At his neuroscience lab within the University of California San Francisco and his gaming company Akili, Gazzaley is attempting to discover whether “we can use this approach to really make a difference”.
“Humans have been consumed with high level performance throughout history,” Gazzaley told the audience at WIRED Health 2015. We have, however, historically proven far better at applying a proven structure to achieving this when physical fitness is involved, not mental. “What can we do to improve cognition, emotional regulation and all these other processing areas? In this regard we are tragically lacking. Traditional education has been about transferring educational content, not optimising these fundamental underlying information processing systems. And with people with deficits, we see these same problems.”
Gazzaley emphasised that although he is not against using medication for these types of deficits, 50 years of drug research later “and not one case has resulted in a high level success story”. On top of this, high drug doses needed to target the underlying neural network inevitably have side-effects, and treatment is not personalised — doses are often based on anecdotal evidence provided by the patient. It’s clear we need to look elsewhere for answers, at least until drug research finds a better solution or a complementary one.
Gazzaley’s response has been to create a “targeted, personalised, multimodal and closed-loop” solution.
The first step, is to identify the target — the different facets of our cognitive capabilities and the underlying neural systems that drive them. These include attention, working memory and goal management. Gazzaley and his team measure these functions using fMRI and EEG. “We can gather biomarkers so we can see if we’re having the impact we’re looking for.”
The second step focuses on taking advantage of the neuroplasticity of the brain to try and modify its functions. The chosen tool for achieving this, is video games — “they are an immersive engaging interactive way of changing behaviour. Something happens in the brain when playing. The video game records in real time and adapts itself as well as giving feedback, explains Gazzaley. That goes back to your brain and creates the desired closed loop.
Finally, the team focuses on enhancing the effects by using high resolution neural feedback to modify the game going forward. “We are looking at different frequency changes in real time, using computational models of how the brain communicates.” The team is using the Unity gaming engine to collate the data garnered from this.
One game the team has already created, Neuroracer, has already shown that 12 hours of gaming a week among 60- to 80-year-olds dramatically improves their ability to multitask, beyond the abilities of a 20-year-old playing the game for the first time. They are now carrying out a three-year study, to see how the game can be used as a diagnostics tool.
“Although we are very proud of this game, the game itself isn’t a game changer. But in time, we hope we’re looking at a blueprint for games that can be used to know deficits in a population.”
Ongoing experiments are looking at using EEG feedback to guide behaviour in real time, and Akili already has a host of other games focusing on meditation, attention, mimicking the rhythmic nature of the brain and more, all of which can be finetuned at a new lab that lets the team process data from eye movement, body movement, skin responses and heartbeat variability. “We are looking at how we can break down that data and find out how a game can change cognition at a big level.” Akili is also looking into applications that can be brought to market sooner for those with ADHD and autism, and creating educational tools, both of which they hope to see hit consumers within the next couple of years.