Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More
I came across some rather nifty equiptment while at a behavioral health conference this weekend. I’m walking around the exhibit hall and amidst the sea of computer software vendors, book publishers, and service agencies I see a guy playing a Sony Playstation car racing game on a big screen tv. It turns out that this is the booth of CyberLearning Technology, LLC (www.smartbraingames.com) out of Southern California, and they have figured out a way to incorporate brain-based biofeedback (neurofeedback, actually) into a gaming console. I was immediately intrigued with the possibilities, and as I asked the vendor a bit about his products, I broke into a grin. What the vendor had on his hands was essentially a bit of behavioral medicine for children with attention, concentration and arousal issues that the kids would actually *want* to consume.
Let’s say you have a child with ADHD or something to that effect. The child is hyperactive and/or has difficulty focusing on tasks and concentrating, most likely as a result of slight brain function problems. Naturally, you’d be concerned and you’d want to explore ways to help your child calm down and focus better. The prefered method of treatment for a problem like this is medication based treatment, typically a stimulant drug. Such drugs are treatments of choice for a good reason (they work well), but they aren’t suitable for everyone, they do have side effects, and they tend to encourage children to develop a passivity or helplessness towards their issues (e.g., that they cannot affect them themselves, but rather must rely on authorities for help). As a concerned parent, you’d want your child to be on the medications if medications were the best avenue of treatment, but you’d also want to know about alternative treatments that might not involve medications (and which would thus not have side effects).
Probably the best studied candidate for a useful non-medicine treatment of ADHD is brain-based biofeedback, specifically the use of real-time brain-wave feedback (recorded using an Electroencephalograph or EEG, a tool that records patterns of electrical activity in the brain). ADHD children show measureably different brain wave patterns compared to normal children. However, normally, those children would have no way to know that their brain waves were not "normal". Lacking in any way to sense what was wrong, they would have no basis for improving. People simply cannot learn effectively without a basis of feedback on how they are doing. The EEG provides children that missing basis. When real-time brain wave recordings are shown to children, they gain the ability to see what their brain is doing, and for the first time in their lives, are able to start learning how to change those brain patterns. They do something (like relax, or tense up, speak or remain silent), and they get feedback as to how that action has changed their brain waves. Over time they learn what actions they can take to move their brain waves towards a normal pattern of firing.
The problem with this approach is that it can be deathly boring. EEG feedback is generally presented as graphed waves or sound beeps which change in frequency as the brain waves change. While this is very important information for children to have, they aren’t going to want to pay attention to it for long.
This is where the playstation car racing games come in. The bright folks at CyberLearning Technology have essentially figured out how to use the video game as a means of providing the EEG neurofeedback. The lucky child who gets to use this technology wears a cap of electrodes that pick up brain waves, the data from which is fed into a computer. The computer processes the EEG data and feeds that directly into the Playstation game controller that kids use to operate their game (typically a car race game or other game that provides a steady forward motion). The computer knows when the child’s brain waves are moving towards a target ‘normal’ profile and when they are moving away from that target. As brain waves move away from the desired configuration, the computer sends a signal to the game controler which makes that controller less responsive. The controler lights up, and the car suddenly doesn’t go as fast, or the stearing suddenly doesn’t work as well. The child is then free to do something (such as take a deep breath) which is likely to move their brain waves in the right direction, and suddenly the car becomes more responsive. Repetitive play with this system enables and trains the child to have brain waves that approximate normal. What’s more, the kid is likely to enjoy every minute of the training becuase it is delivered in the context of a very kid friendly game system.
Of course, gaming is not just for kids today (many 30 year olds play), and EEG neurofeedback is not just useful for ADHD. Many problems related to attention, concentration, arousal and impulsiveness can be trained in this manner, and people with epilepsy, anxiety, depression, addictions, and traumatic brain injuries may benefit from such treatment. Biofeedback is a very old and well respected treatment modality; until now it has just been cumbersome to use and to motivate people to engage. But with cool technologies like the smart braingames system, I think the worst part of the problem is now licked.