Medically Prescribable Video Games

This episode of Kevin Rose’s podcast is super fascinating. Dr. Adam Gazzaley is a professor of neurology at UCSF and has been featured in high profile media outlets. Why? He’s developing video games that can be medically prescribed for cognitive issues like ADHD (I think they said one is in stage 3 of FDA approval?).

Medical treatments in general are often imprecise, ineffective, and even harmful because they are not hyper-personalized (although my friend just pointed out personalized medicine is a tricky topic to begin with, so adding this caveat – the truth is we do not understand the science enough to significantly improve a treatment by personalizing it, and some doctors, enabled by the buzziness of it, try crazy things). Treatments for the brain in particular are dicey because it is the most complex system of our complex systems. Obviously, it’s really hard to identify that there is one cause and effect  that can be fixed (my depression comes from X. Y fixes problems with X. Take Z amounts of Y). Taking Zoloft for depression is often like slapping a band aid made of broken glass on a cut. Even if it somehow stops the bleeding, it’ll probably create cuts around the original cut.

So, Dr. Gazzaley stresses the use of experience as a treatment. Rather than slapping said chemical band aid on neural processes that may help (i.e. trigger the inhibition of serotonin-uptake), he is trying to recreate the experiential conditions that give rise to certain brain states and train the brain to improve. This is a behavioral therapy that uses the brain’s complexity to its advantage.

For example, let’s say I’m a 35 year old who has been struggling with ADHD since childhood. The idea is I would play this game an hour a day, 3 times a week for several weeks. The game would lead me through a series of fun, goal-directed tasks. Meanwhile, the software’s algorithm learns from the depth of my engagement with it at any given moment and adjusts the difficulty level in real time. This works because these games are “closed loop systems”, which basically means feedback from output is incorporated to improve the system for the next round of input. The analogy they use in the podcast is lifting weights – picture picking up a barbell in the gym, but as you lift, the barbell measures how you’re doing and automatically raises or lowers the weight to maximize your gains. The game helps my brain to be better at the moments I am susceptible to distraction.

Dr. Gazzaley’s work is just one touch point in the wave of advancements that tech in enabling in medicine. Initiatives like this are part of the reason I’m intrigued by VR. As graphics, audio, and haptic feedback technologies develop in parallel with our collective knowledge of how the brain works, there can be amazing applications in neurology.

I’ve also been going down various rabbit holes on biotech because many of the reasons I’m interested in VR translate to the space. Will post some things I’ve been reading about it soon…



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