Prescription Video Games Show Promise for ADHD Treatment in Kids

By Victoria Kim 12/08/17

A Boston-based company is also exploring video games' potential for treating depression in adults.

kid playing on tablet

Can ADHD and depression be treated with a video game? That’s the direction that Akili Interactive Labs is heading in, with plans to file for FDA approval next year for a video game that’s so far demonstrated that it can be effective for children with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder).

Reuters reports that the “digital prescription product,” called AKL-T01, would be the first of its kind to receive FDA approval. On Monday (Dec. 4), Akili announced that clinical trials of its product have shown promising results.

Among 348 participants aged 8-12 and diagnosed with ADHD, the group that played AKL-T01 showed “statistically significant improvement in attention performance” compared with the control group, which played a different video game. After four weeks of playing the game, researchers reported improvement in attention and inhibitory control, according to STAT News.

So how does it work? Players navigate through a fantasy world, “down a molten lava river and through an icy winter wonderland,” and are rewarded with points as they complete tasks. The game is designed to activate certain cognitive neural networks in the brain, STAT explains.

“We are directly targeting the key neurological pathways that control attention and impulsivity,” says Akili CEO Eddie Martucci. “We have something that looks and feels and is delivered through a video game. But when someone’s using it, they’re getting a direct physiological activation that will lead hopefully… to cognitive and general clinical improvement.”

Could AKL-T01 replace pharmaceutical medications? The game has yet to be tested alongside ADHD medications or psychotherapy, which would determine whether they are more or less effective. 

There are many traditional ADHD medications to choose from, including Adderall and Concerta. And for the finicky-est kids, there’s even a candy-flavored, chewable amphetamine called Adzenys, approved by the FDA in January 2016. The drug is designed for patients six years and older, but garnered mixed reactions from people who believe that children are often over-medicated.

For now, only time will tell if doctors, parents and patients will take to the new video game treatment. The current recommended regimen is 30 minutes per day, five days a week, for four weeks.

Akili is also studying whether a similar version of its video game can be helpful to adults with depression. Initial results of these trials are expected in late 2018.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr