Akili, Pfizer, and the Rise of Videogame Brain Therapies

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a “clinical” game will be less fun to play. Omernick is well aware of that notion. “I thought we’d have to give up part of the fun in exchange for the science. Not only was that not true, but we turned it around,” he says. He can’t reveal the specifics, but a key moment in the game was driven by scientific constraints, he says, and ended up being one of the best parts.

In fact, Omernick says, “I would tell game companies to hire a neuroscientist.”

That’s all well and good. But Akili will need to show that its technology works as a diagnostic tool and has clinical benefits—and then it has to make money. The company’s market strategy is broad, in that its game platform targets the brain’s “executive function,” Martucci says, rather than specific diseases.

“The clinical path is always a bit daunting,” he admits. “But what we have going for us, what gives us a nice edge, is multiple patient populations and multiple uses.”

In addition to the Pfizer study on elderly people, which should get underway later this year, Akili is running trials with Duke University in children with ADHD; kids with autism spectrum disorders; college students in Vermont with autism, ADHD, and other cognitive deficits; and two studies in people with depression.

By the end of 2014, the company says, more than 400 people will have participated in clinical trials of its game platform. In several studies, the startup is already testing for therapeutic results of the game—whether (and how) it leads to any sustained cognitive benefits—as well as its diagnostic capabilities.

Akili has a “big data” strategy here, too. By collecting game-play data at 30 frames per second of every run by every subject, the company hopes to improve the efficacy of its software and eventually make it adaptive in real-time for each player. And it will analyze behavioral differences between patient populations (and across studies) to sharpen its search for “cognitive signatures” of specific diseases and potential therapeutic benefits, Martucci says.

Of course, making sense of all that data from such a complex game environment, and doing it objectively, will be a major challenge. But if the number-crunching goes according to plan, Akili hopes to ride the wave of digital health into doctors’ offices and patients’ living rooms.

Meanwhile, the healthcare and gaming industries will be watching closely. Games for Health’s Sawyer, for one, thinks Akili is on to something and is the furthest along of its peers.

“You’re starting to see this area of neuro-therapeutics delivered as games, moving beyond the ‘brain training,’” Sawyer says. “It’s really nice to see some of the startups in the space seem to bring a larger sense of maturity, goals, scale, and polish in terms of the whole apparatus.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • Paul

    This reads like a press release for a particular start-up. Other companies have got way further in the marketplace, in published research, and with pharma partnerships, so why ignore them when making first this first that claims?