Video Games That Get Kids' Attention, Enhance Learning Children Put On Helmets Linked To Sensors That Monitor Their Brain
Benjamin Pimentel, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, September 26, 2005
Like many parents, Janet Herlihey tried her best to keep her kids away from video games.
She was particularly concerned about the potential harm to her two boys who have had problems focusing and controlling their emotions.
"Why would this be good for kids who had a hard time concentrating?" said Herlihey, who lives in West Chester, Pa. "It doesn't make sense." She told her boys, Michael, 12, and Paul, 10: "Don't ever ask me, because you'll never get them."
But late last year, the boys did get to play video games -- and with the blessing of their parents.
The Herliheys had decided to let their sons -- who show symptoms of attention-deficit disorder but have never been diagnosed -- try out a new treatment that uses video games to help children with attention problems.
Smart BrainGames, developed by CyberLearning Technology in San Diego, use a combination of adaptive automation and video games to help children deal with attention problems. The kids who undergo the treatment put on helmets linked to sensors that monitor their brain activity while playing video games. The more focused they are, the better their chances of winning in the game.
The use of video games in treating attention-deficit problems in children is new. While the technology, which is based on research done by NASA, apparently has been well received, one expert said more studies need to be done on the system.
The games are based on the science of neurofeedback, which tracks and measures brain wave activity.
"The brain produces slow wave patterns and it produces fast wave patterns," said Domenic Greco, founder and CEO of CyberLearning Technology. "When we are in a wide-alert stage, we're producing fast waves. As we start getting daydreamy and drifty, we produce slower waves. As we get real drowsy and sleepy, it slows down even more. Then we get into that sleep state. Then the reverse (happens) as we come out of sleep."
Neurofeedback technology makes people aware of those changes, prompting them to find ways to focus more by exercising their brain.
The adaptive automotion technology was first developed by a team of scientists at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia led by Dr. Alan Pope, who wanted to come up with a better balance of automation and human control on flight simulators.
NASA and Eastern Virginia Medical School then took on the technology and combined it with neurofeedback to find ways to help children with attention-deficit problems.
Pope said the technology helped make neurofeedback, which has long been used for treating attention problems, more entertaining.
"The traditional means of delivering neurofeedback tends to be boring," he said. "We had subjects drop out. Attrition was a big problem. With the kids that had video games, they were actually anxious to come to treatment. They would drag their parents in to come to treatment."
Greco, whose company won an exclusive license to develop the technology in 2002, said many children with attention problems had no problems focusing on video games.
"We hear that from parents all the time. 'My (children) can't do their homework. They won't study. But they can sit and play video games for hours,' " he said. "So we had a medium that kids were already comfortable with, that they enjoy doing, that we knew they would be able to make use of on a regular basis."
The system, which has a base price of about $550, includes the headset with brainwave sensors, a small box that tracks brainwave signals, a game controller and special software. The system is designed for Sony PlayStation systems, but the company plans to adapt it to other gaming consoles, including Xbox and Nintendo, as well for regular DVD systems.
The system uses games that involve racing and jumping, such as Drome Racers or Ratchet and Clank. The treatment is based on a basic principle: you lose focus, you lose the game.
The more a player is focused, the faster the speeds or the higher the distances the player's character in the game is able to reach. When players get distracted or lose focus, the characters' performance lags. The system lets players know that they have lost their concentration by making the game controller vibrate and changing the pitch of a tone that sounds during the game.
"The faster your brain is working, the more speed you have available with the character," Greco said as a reporter tested the system with a game called Crash Team Racing. "You see that character kind of surge back and forth."
Herlihey said she had a million questions about having her boys play video games as part of their treatment, but she and her husband eventually decided to try it out.
When she told her sons that they will get to play video games as part of their new treatment, the boys were thrilled.
"Oh my god, they were like, 'Yeah, that's great,' " she said. "I had to eat my words."
The treatment has paid off, she said.
"There were changes that were really exciting," she said. "Michael's memory improved so much that I did not have to remind him about things. Because his memory was better, he was learning better."
With Paul, she added, "I saw his ability to do work independently improve."
Dr. Victor Carrion, a professor of child psychiatry at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, said that while more studies are needed to evaluate the technology, the concept of using video games to exercise parts of the brain is interesting.
"There may be some circuits in the brain of children (with attention-deficit disorder) that may be improved, so the idea is appealing," he said. "It sounds worth looking at."
Herlihey said the technology has helped bring some much-needed harmony in her home.
"I will say at one point, we didn't," she said. "Now we enjoy being together and we have a lot of laughs."