Therapeutic Video Game Startup Akili Takes Aim at Autism

For decades, experts have debated whether video games positively or negatively affect your brain. Boston-based startup Akili Interactive thinks it’s a settled question, and that games on mobile devices can be beneficial both for players and doctors. Now it’s all about proving it.

Akili announced Monday it has formed a clinical research collaboration agreement with Delivering Scientific Innovation for Autism (DELSIA), a nonprofit affiliated with Autism Speaks. The latter organization is one of that nation’s largest autism-related advocacy groups, and it created DELSIA to financially support the research and development of technology that can benefit people with autism.

Akili develops video games that it believes can diagnose and treat cognitive problems, including Alzheimer’s and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—and even mental health issues such as depression. The company and its gaming platform, named Project: EVO, is based on about a decade of research conducted by Adam Gazzaley at the University of California San Francisco. Gazzaley is Akili’s chief science officer.

Financial terms of the partnership were not disclosed, but Akili co-founder and chief operating officer Eddie Martucci said the money will pay for a study to test whether the startup’s game can help children with high-functioning autism as well as ADHD. Martucci said that’s a significant subset of all people with autism, possibly between 30 to 50 percent, but he emphasizes the upcoming trial will not apply to all people on the autism spectrum.

Autism is complicated and in many ways still poorly understood, but Martucci believes the science behind Project: EVO could extend to autism. Prior stories in Xconomy have discussed Gazzaley’s research and Akili’s technology in depth, but the key idea is that people with many types of cognitive problems have trouble processing sensory stimuli, specifically multiple streams of information, that create what’s known as cognitive interference. That can impair cognitive functions such as problem solving, attention, working memory, emotional regulation, and executive functioning, which is the ability to make and carry out plans.

Those functions are “surprising fragile” and depend on processing sensory information. Or, as Martucci puts it, “our brain has a noise filter. We call that the interference filter, [and] to our knowledge, no one before has tried to target the interference filter.”

Akili wants to be able to help doctors diagnose those impairments so they can start treatments, and the company believes its games will have therapeutic benefits. Gazzaley’s hypothesis is that the brain’s filter can be strengthened by improving its multitasking abilities and that will improve some cognitive functions, Martucci said. (This article in Nature explains the research.)

Akili is building on Gazzaley’s work by creating games developed by entertainment and game industry veterans. So far, the games work on iPads and iPhones, and they have a professional sheen that makes them look like something you might buy in the App Store. Akili still is determining how often someone would need to play its games to have a therapeutic benefit, but Martucci said it’s in the range of 10 hours per month or 30 minutes per day. That could be a chore and lead to patient noncompliance, which is why Akili is emphasizing high- quality graphics and fun and easy game-play.

There are plenty of other apps and games that claim to improve mental abilities, with Americans spending an estimated $1.3 billion per year on them. But they lack one crucial thing in Akili’s eyes—scientific validation. Akili is determined that its products are legitimate medical tools that meet FDA standards, which is why the company is conducting randomized clinical studies for various conditions to prove their validity. The company has started or finished a total of 10 clinical trials, including one in partnership with Pfizer to see if its games could be used with Alzheimer’s patients.

Once Akili establishes its merits, it wants to become a widespread tool, and that means keeping costs down.

“We don’t want to make yet another extremely expensive medical device that a very small subset of patients actually can afford to use,” Martucci said. That’s why Akili decided to create software that works with smartphones and tablets.

“We want to make something that is broadly accessible to your average patient dealing with an issue, and we think an app download to their own device is the way to go,” he said.

Akili was founded by PureTech, a Boston-based research and development company focused on healthcare innovation and investment. Currently Akili has about five employees split between Boston and San Francisco, but the staff should soon grow as it moves beyond clinical validation and expands its focus to additional conditions, Martucci said.

The partnership with DELSIA is a “philanthropic investment” that does not give the organization equity in Akili but could yield royalties if the company is medically and commercially successful, Martucci said.

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  • Dmarcotte

    This is exciting news. A partnership like this may lead to breakthroughs in effective treatments that won’t require specialized one on one therapists and that may complement existing treatments as well. I wonder if Akili has taken the next step of hiring autistic adults who may be skilled in developing these programs.