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

3/14/12Follow @xconomy

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support the idea of neuroplasticity—essentially that the brain can overcome that kind of stimulus, and adapt and get better at various cognitive tasks through practice.

“We know that plasticity doesn’t end at the end of development but persists throughout life,” Gazzaley says. “The question is, can it be improved through adaptive training? If it’s not a boring psychology-based piece of software, but it’s more fun, more continuous, more rewarding, then we think it can have a bigger impact.”

So far, the Akili founding team isn’t saying much about what the prototype game is about, other than to say it has “action components.” Two of the key people on the team—Matt Omernick and Adam Piper—have a “hard-core game experience,” Martucci says. Omernick previously worked on Star Wars titles, as well as Medal of Honor at LucasArts, he says. “Both of these guys are really motivated to do something that can have an impact on human health and do something more than just entertain people,” Martucci says.

Clinical trials of these kinds of games could be easier than traditional medical studies, in which a patient needs to come in to the doctor to get an experimental drug or device. It should be possible to do “remote” studies, Gazzaley says, in which a research subject gets a mobile device with a game on it which records data on how it’s used, which is then wirelessly transmitted to the trial’s central database. It’s hard to know where such a device and application would fit in FDA-land, although the U.S. health regulator has been seeking guidance from entrepreneurs about mobile health applications coming in the future, Zohar says.

If Akili is able to demonstrate that one of its games can deliver a measurable improvement in cognition for patients with ADHD, or some other condition, there’s bound to be interest among other people. As I pointed out to Zohar and Martucci, if a Mom to an ADHD-diagnosed kid sees the game helping one of her sons, chances are she might want to let his little brother or sister try it, too. And if it’s really fun and immersive, like the best entertainment games on the market, people will want it without getting a prescription from their healthcare provider.

Akili has thought about how to balance the potential for interest from both patients and broader segments of consumers, and that’s a business model challenge still to be worked on. For now, the next few months will be about honing the game prototype, and getting it ready for some preliminary studies this spring and summer at UCSF to see what kind of effect it has on people’s brains.

At least anecdotally, Zohar and Martucci have played the game, but they didn’t offer up any data points on how it affected their cognition. “Maybe we’re biased, but we think this game is really fun,” Zohar says.

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