Adventures in Brainland: Video Games as Therapeutics

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The fourth session of the day-long event, “Adventures in Brainland” brought two presenters to the stage: Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, professor in neurology, physiology and psychiatry as well as director of the Gazzaley Lab at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF); and Jim Marggraff, serial entrepreneur and founder, chairman and CEO of Eyefluence, a Silicon Valley startup bringing eyes to the center of head mounted displays (HMDs). Beginning with Gazzaley, both masterminds of their respective fields would shed some light on grey matters of the mind, and present solutions to problems by employing new digital inventions.

As Gazzaley took the stage to kick off the mid-morning session, he introduced the audience to his lab’s adventurous hypothesis: that video games may be used as therapeutic devices to help treat memory loss, attention problems and other neurological issues.





“Modern humans have always been preoccupied with reaching high level performance [in physical fitness],” said Gazzaley. “But what have we done in optimizing the brain? In this regard, we’re tragically lacking.”

The Gazzaley Lab aims to bridge the gap between technology and neuroscience by studying, mainly, the neural mechanisms of memory, attention and perception, and their relationship to physical activity. This cognitive-physiological link, he said, may be the key to solving issues of the mind related to aging and childhood development.

Gazzaley believes video games may be used as therapeutic devices to help treat memory loss, attention problems and other neurological issues.
Gazzaley aims to bridge the gap between technology and neuroscience by studying neural mechanisms of memory, attention and perception, and their relationship to physical activity.
“Video games live largely in entertainment, but that’s changing,” said Gazzaley, telling Summit audience members about eight games his lab has developed to test improvement of cognitive functioning.

One such game is the Brain-Body Trainer, or BBT, which combines mental and physical training by setting participants up with video game mechanics, a Kinect motion sensing input device and a heart rate monitor, together measuring the game’s effect on body and mind. According to Gazzaley, participants in the BBT showed significant improvements in blood pressure, as well as indications of improved working memory performance.

Further applications of these findings, Gazzaley explained, could be as simple as improving working memory in aging adults, or as groundbreaking as improving brain functioning in adolescents with depression or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In the future, video games like the BBT might reduce prescriptions of pharmaceuticals for mental disorders, he said.

“Can technology be the solution where we failed in molecules?” Gazzaley asked, referring to pharmaceuticals’ tendency toward a one-size-fits-all method. “The answer is less complex than you might think. Technologies can be used to create experience and experience is the gateway to brain plasticity.

“Witnessing a single tragic event can detrimentally damage the brain for life,” said Gazzaley. “We want to use technology to create powerful experiences, to maximize plasticity, to improve functioning of cognitive abilities and ultimately, to elevate our minds.”

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