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Video Games Could be the Prescription Drug of the Future

Adam Gazzaley, founder of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, was Nvidia's third keynote speaker during GTC 2014 last week. The goal of this center is not to extend life, but to enrich life with better cognitive skills. To achieve this goal, the center is using custom video games that target specific areas of the brain instead of using drugs that affect the entire brain and cause side effects.

"We know that [videogames] have a strong influence on behavior," he told the audience. "That's obvious. The question is, can they actually have a positive impact? Can we think about video games beyond entertainment?"

He believes that rich, immersive, fun action games might actually be a tool that can shape how a brain functions. His lab began researching the idea five years ago, and teamed up with LucasArts to produce a game that targeted the biggest weakness in older adults: the ability to deal with multiple streams of information in a distracting environment.

The early version of the game, called Neuroracer, featured a winding road going in all directions and up hills, and signs that the player must match while trying to stay on the road. These tasks are adaptive, he said, meaning that as the player performs better, the game increases its level of difficulty. The only way the players get rewarded is to level up both skills.

"The idea that you can find a deficit, and build a customized game that addresses that deficit, and then study it in a controlled fashion with mechanisms of action using neural recordings," he said. "That is what I hope becomes a game changer: that methodology that you could think of software in this way as a therapeutic, and then go about validating it in a very careful manner."

He decided to move the research out of the lab by creating a startup called Akili Interactive Labs, which employs a number of former LucasArts developers. Here he's hoping to build the very first mobile video game to get certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, AKA the world's first prescribed (therapeutic) video game.

The new company, backed by two investors from the medical field, has several games in development using new technologies and new platforms such as Kinect that will challenge the player both physically and mentally. There's even another project using the Oculus Rift.

"Right now in 2014, if someone comes in with a memory problem, this is what they get: a pill that's blunt in how it affects the entire brain," he told the audience. "But what I hope to see as soon as 2019 is that we can increasingly use custom targeted video games to activate circuits that are deficient, then take these EEG signals, feed them into the game, and cycle it back in to the system to challenge the brain in a very selective way to work on specific neural prosthesis."

He said that what the lab has created is a targeted, personalized, closed loop approach that may usher in a new generation of therapeutics to improve how the brain functions. Over the next ten years, he plans on moving these projects out to other clinical conditions through collaborations.

The keynote ended with a demo of "Rhythm in the Brain" featuring Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart playing on a small drum machine programmed with electronic sounds rather than a snare and toms. In this demo, he was tasked to keep a rhythm going while shooting asteroids at the same time. The demo was rather bizarre, but showed that Hart had no problem carrying out two tasks at once. A researcher sat beside him, wearing the Oculus Rift and flying through a three-dimensional, immersive model of the popular drummer's brain in real time.

"This is the beginning," Gazzaley concluded. "Our team has worked amazingly hard to get us to this point, and every step of the way we try to bring in new technology that we thought could open a doorway to a new type of therapy, a new way of improving how our brains function in cognition."