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Video Games to treat ADD?

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Updated November 05, 2005

Video Game EEG

Video Game EEG Biofeedback

NASA Langley Research Center

Can your child attend better in school by playing video games? NASA research on brain waves may soon have practical applications in this area. Alan Pope, Ph.D. and Olafur Pallson, Psy.D. have invented a way for Nintendo and Play Station games to be used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder. Pope is the NASA psychologist and electrical engineer who invented virtual reality biofeedback. In his research into human factors in aerospace he has studied ways to help pilots keep their attention focused during the sometimes monotonous task of flying a plane.

EEG biofeedback gives a person feedback on their brainwaves. In traditional EEG biofeedback a child with ADD may be trying to make one colored bar go higher (by producing more fast brain waves) and another go lower (by producing less slow brain waves). Some existing software also allows them to play simple video games which reinforce the faster brain 'beta' waves. Pope and Pallson's unique contribution is that they have invented a device that works with off-the-shelf video games. When players produce faster brain waves - beta waves - the game pad or joy stick for the video game works better, and they can better control the characters on the screen. When players use slower, more lethargic brain waves - theta waves - the game pad is more sluggish. Now your youngster can play their favorite video game and learn to pay attention better at the same time.

Research is ongoing on the device. In early research about 20 youngsters ages 9 to 14 received EEG biofeedback - half using the new invention, and half using traditional biofeedback. Both groups are said to have made improvements in controlling their impulses and improving their concentration. Pope and Pallson reported that the youngsters using video games showed improvements sooner. They were also more likely to come in for their sessions.

"This technology could be in homes all over the country within the next two or three years," according to David Shannon of Langley's commercialization office. Several companies have applied for a license to use NASA's new technology. One licensee will be chosen soon.

Drs. Pope and Palsson even foresee a time when video game makers who produce games merely for entertainment might have a hard time competing with companies making games that have healthy mental or physical side benefits. Markets that would be interested are video game entertainment, attention deficit treatment, stress and pain management, and peak performance training.

I asked Dr. Pope about his inspiration for the invention. His reply:

The biofeedback video game concept (patented by NASA in 1994) evolved from a physiologically-adaptive simulator system that was developed in NASA flight deck research. With this system, brainwaves controlled the level of automation in a simulator flight deck. This "closed-loop" testing setup was used to determine what level of automation kept pilots engaged best in the flight task. It was soon realized that, given enough practice, pilots could probably turn the testing system into a training system; that is, they would learn to control their brainwaves to set the level of automation where they wanted. This becomes essentially a brainwave biofeedback training situation. It differs from conventional brainwave biofeedback in that the feedback and reward are not explicit on a display, but implicit in the subject's control of the task's difficulty with his brainwaves. If the flight simulator is replaced with a video game, as it was in the spin-off technology, the system becomes an entertaining way to deliver brainwave biofeedback training. NASA scientists are encouraged to look for these kinds of spin-offs from their core aerospace research.

Pope shared the first device he invented with Palsson, who criticized it as impractical. Expensive specialized software would be needed. Pope and Palsson then worked together to invent the new system that uses off-the-shelf software and hardware.

According to Pope, NASA has future plans to use the video-game concept to train pilots to keep their heart rates calm during emergencies, since a racing heart can interfere with decision-making. Researchers are also planning to apply this in experiments in attention management and peak performance training in aviation.

Now your ADD child may be able to play a video game in your home in order to attend better in school. Will Ritalin be obsolete? The company selling the technology is at SmartBrainGames.com.

Last updated 11/5/05

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