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 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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