Akili Interactive Seeks to Make Video Games That Heal, Not Harm

3/14/12Follow @xconomy

I’m no expert on video games, having only recently discovered the time-wasting phenomenon Angry Birds on my iPad. Like a lot of people, my general impression is that excessive use of video games is probably at least partly to blame for a bunch of neurological and behavioral problems, starting with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in kids.

But there’s a movement afoot that says the immersive power of video games can be harnessed not only to entertain, but to enhance cognitive abilities. While educational games have been around a long time, some neuroscientists believe that some games might possibly become therapeutic tools against conditions like ADHD or autism. And one startup in Boston and San Francisco, Akili Interactive Labs, is betting that it will be among the first to create an FDA-approved video game that could be prescribed by doctors like a medical device.

The company, founded about a year ago by Boston’s PureTech Ventures, is drawing on Adam Gazzaley‘s research at UCSF into the effect of multi-tasking on productivity. A couple of veteran game developers from LucasArts, George Lucas’s video game company, have joined the effort and created a prototype game for mobile platforms like the iPad. And Akili—wisdom in Swahili—is working with clinical advisors on crafting experiments that are robust enough to someday persuade the FDA and practicing physicians that its games are a viable way to treat cognitive or behavioral disorders like ADHD.

Essentially, it aspires to be the first video game company with FDA approval to sell its product as a medical device. If everything breaks right, it could have a product to make that claim within a few years, says Akili co-founder Eddie Martucci, a senior associate at PureTech.

Adam Gazzaley, UCSF neuroscientist, co-founder of Akili Interactive Labs

“You can have a game company or a medical device company, but we are trying to merge the best of both and create something new,” says UCSF’s Gazzaley. “That to me is very innovative and exciting.”

The idea for Akili started picking up steam inside PureTech about a year ago, as the firm decided to take a closer look at the emerging science of using video games for cognitive benefit, says Daphne Zohar, PureTech’s founder and managing partner. Martucci, a biochemist, led the effort internally to find the most interesting published research and connect with the top scientists in the field. PureTech, which counts pharmaceutical industry veterans like Ben Shapiro and John LaMattina among its advisors, was well aware of some of the challenges with developing pharmaceuticals against neurological and psychiatric conditions. “The drug industry has done a lot to influence the brain through drugs, but it’s so complex,” Zohar says. “What’s interesting about these approaches is you can get real human data about indications you’re going after, without drugs.”

UCSF’s Gazzaley was high on the list of contacts at PureTech, because of his work that uses the tools of neuroscience—functional MRI machines and electroencephalograms (EEGs)—to measure how the brain responds in a goal-directed environment when multi-tasking, or dealing with lots of little distractions and interruptions. More evidence is accumulating to … Next Page »

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