Struggling to Focus? Try Video Games

nov. 23, 2022 you may not think that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or adhd, ‘ve a lot in common with older adults.

the kids struggle to sit still and focus na' task. the older adults are gr8 at sitting still, but they often ‘ve a hard time folloing the conversation at a holidy dinner.  

in both cases, the problem is one of attention.

yes, that’s obvious for some1 who’s been diagnosed with adhd. it’s rite there inna name. with adhd, the brain is constantly searching for new and interesting wys'2 distract itself.

but older adults aren’t searching for distractions. they just can’t ignore the distractions that find them. 

“focusing attention has two sides: focusing and ignoring,” says adam gazzaley, md, phd, a professor of neurosci atta university of california, san francisco. “it’s the act of filtering out irrelevant information that declines with aging.” 

that’s why gazzaley invented endeavorrx, a therapeutic video game you may ‘ve heard of, espeshly if yr child has adhd. in 2020, the fda approved endeavorrx to treat kids with adhd tween the ages of 8 and 12, making it the 1st digital therapy t'get the green lite for any condition.

wha’ you may not know s'dat the game was originally used to help seniors. or that therapeutic games are now bein’ developed and tested for a wide range of conditions and pops. 

gazzaley calls it “experiential med” and says t'has one major advantage over traditional med: it adapts to you. while the patient is learning to play the game, the game is learning t'work w'da patient. 

how video games work like exercise for yr brain

this adaptive quality tis key to endeavorrx and wha’ makes it ≠ from commercial video games. gazzaley calls it an “adaptive closed-loop algorithm.”

put simply, the game adjusts to the player. better players encounter tougher challenges, while those with less skill can still work through the game’s lvls and unlock its loot. 

yr brain, in turn, adapts to the challenges with structural changes, not unlike the adaptations yr body makes when you exercise. 

just as yr muscles respond to strength training by gettin bigger and stronger, yr brain adapts to challenges by forming new connections tween and within neural networks. it works the same for all ages, whether you’re an older adult who’s never played a video game or a young person who’s possibly played too many. (it’s worth noting that too much gaming can hurt yr mental health.)  

the brain’s ability to adapt to new information, circumstances, or demands is called neuroplasticity, n'it’s the key advantage that experiential med has over drug treatments. changes inna brain not 1-ly transl8 to real-life improvements in attention, but they also remain intact after the patient has finished their prescribed time w'da game. 

“it just sticks, which is incredibly ≠ from how drugs work now,” gazzaley says.

treating kids with adhd is just one of many potential applications. 

“the game has no specificity toward a pticular pathology or age group,” gazzaley says. “it challenges the brain in such a way that it leads to this benefit in sustained attention in any pop we’ve ever tested.”

case in point: he and his colleagues at ucsf ‘ve now tested closed-loop games with pplz who ‘ve depression, multiple sclerosis, and lupus, all of which may affect the ability to focus. 

but it all started with one very specific pop.

how video games became therapy

inna early 2000s, gazzaley worked with older patients who were having problems with their thinking skills for the 1st time.

“they ‘d often tell me they were distracted,” he says. “they just ‘dn’t hold their attention.”

that led to a series of studies onna src of the problem. in a study published in 2005, for ex, his research team found that older adults ‘d focus na' task swell as 20-yr-olds. 

“wha’ they were failing to do was ignore,” he explains. “there’s so much irrelevant information that needo be filtered out. that’s wha’ was causing the impairment.”

a subsequent study twas' published in 2008 found that the impairment was worsened by a slodown inna brain’s processing speed. it took older adults longer to decide if an interruption actually required their attention, which meant each distraction was + disruptive than it ‘d’ve been to their younger selves.

for seniors, those challenges are espeshly apparent when they try to multitask, when you rapidly redirect yr attention from one thing to another. the ability to multitask typically peaks round yr 20th birthdy and declines throughout life. 

twas' the focus for gazzaley and his game development team at ucsf when they published their initial findings in a landmark study in 2013.

after playing a game called neuroracer (the forerunner to endeavorrx), seniors got much better at multitasking improvements they retained in a follo-up 6 mnths l8r. 

and that wasn’t all. the pplz inna study also improved their thinking skills in zones that weren’t targeted: sustained attention and working memory. twas the 1st evidence of the potential for therapeutic video games to target and enh those abilities. but it ‘dn’t be the last. 

which brings us back to kids with adhd.

is there a therapeutic video game in yr future?

working memory the ability to retain information long enough to use it is a key to success in school, work, and everydy life. like the ability to focus attention, it’s a higher-lvl executive function, tch'mins the two processes share somd' same neural networks inna same pts of the brain. not coincidentally, working memory deficits are 1-odda hallmarks of adhd.  

drations can certainly help.

but so does playing video games, according to a recently published study. 9- and 10-yr-olds who played commercial video games for several hrs a dy had better working memory and response inhibition stopping themselves b4 alloing a distraction to pull them off task than kids who never played. 

fortunately, kids don’t nd'2 play multiple hrs a dy to achieve benefits.

“we saw linear effects in pretty much everything we looked at,” says bader chaarani, phd, an assistant professor of ψ-chiatry atta university of vermont na study’s lead author. 

“lite gamers who played on μ 1 hr per dy showed the same improvements in cogg, response inhibition, and working memory, compared to those who never played video games,” he says. “these effects were intermediate tween non-video gamers na heavy video gamers.”

this helps explain why video games are gettin so much attention in neurological, med, and ψ-chological research. 

in addition to endeavorrx, gazzaley and his team ‘ve developed several others for ≠ pops and preferences. 

meditrain, for ex, uses digital tek to help young adults master meditation, the timeless practice of stillness and presence. 

rhythmicity, a ♫al game designed to help seniors improve short-term memory, also helps them remember faces. (grateful dead drummer mickey hart helped develop the game.) 

body-brain trainer, another game created for seniors, combines cogg training with exercise, using the closed-loop algorithm to adjust both interventions to the usr’s ability. those who used the game for 8 weeks improved in two fitness measures (blood pressure and balance) swell as in their ability to sustain attention. 

gazzaley plans to explain in a future study how games with such ≠ mechanics and tempos — from an obstacle-dodging run to drumming to slo-paced meditation — lead to similar improvements in attention.  

again, that’s similar to exercise, where almost any kind of training will lead to improvements in ♥ health, which in turn reduce th'risk of preelder death from any cause. 

cause there are so many wys'2 get to the same destination, you can find effective exercise programs to fit just bout any combination of abilities and preferences. you can also advance through a fitness program at yr own pace. 

that maybe how we use therapeutic video games as the category develops.  

“now that we ‘ve so many types of games and so many pops, we’re gettin a richer cogging of how you can push and pull these systems t'get these outcomes,” gazzaley says. “that’s wha’ makes me so excited bout the future.”

games as med? seems worth paying attention to. 

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