Why Your Doctor May Someday Prescribe Playing Video GamesMarch 27, 2014
And you thought his music was trippy.
Thousands of attendees at our annual GPU Technology Conference had the opportunity to dive inside Grateful Dead Drummer Mickey Hart’s brain Thursday. The tour of Hart’s skull was conducted as the man formerly known as the “Rhythm Devil” tapped and twitched his way through an interactive, virtual-reality rhythm game where he blasted huge space rocks as he floated high above a bright blue planet.
Beside him a researcher — also equipped with virtual reality goggles — peered around a three-dimensional, immersive model of Hart’s brain. The glass-like image was fed by a cap equipped with wires attached to Hart’s head. Brain circuits were shown firing in neon colors in real time. And the action from both perspectives was displayed on enormous tennis court-sized screens.
This was no rave. Quite the opposite. It was a demonstration of how a team led by neurologist Adam Gazzaley, founder of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, is using video games for serious science. His goal: to not only better understand the brain, but improve its performance in ways that are far more precise than previous methods.
The problem, Gazzaley explained, is that even at the best medical centers, cognitive disorders — such as dementia– are treated with drugs that affect the entire brain, rather than specific pathways within it. Worse yet, the impact of those treatments is poorly understood.
A physician might prescribe a drug, treatment will begin, and there’s no way to capture how that drug has performed. “You’ll come back months later with a subjective impression of what’s changed,” Gazzaley said.
That’s changing. Gazzaley has already made an impact in the scientific community with his work exploring how videogames, of all things, can be used to help improve attention, memory, and decision-making.
Last year Nature magazine showcased Gazzaley’s work. The cover story described how his team built a videogame, “Neuroracer,” that created a measurable improvement in the brain performance of those who used it.
Now Gazzaley’s exploring ways to use real-time feedback about how the brain is responding to better target the neural pathways an interactive experience is trying to target.
He’s now exploring ways to integrate the latest research on how the brain works with virtual reality headsets, mobile electroencephalography technology, and trans-cranial electrical brain stimulation gear. The aim: create treatments for specific problems that are testable, quantifiable, and targeted.
He’s even launched a startup, Akili Interactive Labs, that’s building what he hopes will be the first video game to get certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“In essence the game will be able to diagnose weaknesses in how your brain processes information and challenge you, like a surgeon sculpting, to improve those processes,” Gazzaley said.
The goal is to do more than just trip people out. If we can turn technology into an engine to enhance our brain’s information processing systems, Gazzaley explained, we can reduce our reliance on drugs to treat the brain. Or even help students in our schools get smarter, faster.
That’s not a rave, that’s a revolution.