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Trial to Test Video Game Therapy for Autism

Adam Gazzaley

Adam Gazzaley (University of California, San Francisco)

2 March 2015. A clinical trial plans to begin recruiting participants to test a video game designed to engage areas of the brain for building cognitive skills affected by autism. The trial, conducted by Akili Interactive Labs that developed the game, is funded by Delivering Scientific Innovation for Autism or Delsia LLC, a subsidiary of the foundation Autism Speaks for supporting technologies to treat the disorder. Financial details were not disclosed.

Autism spectrum disorder is a collection of neurodevelopmental conditions, marked by communication difficulties and impaired social interaction, as well as repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior. At age 8, some 1 in 88 children have autism spectrum disorder, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Classic autism is considered the most severe form of the syndrome.

Akili Interactive Labs is a spin-off enterprise from University of California in San Francisco, based on research from the lab of neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, a co-founder and scientific advisor to the company. Gazzaley and colleagues at UCSF designed a video game to detect signs of cognitive decline among elderly individuals, and discovered that the game not only detected cognitive decline, it also had therapeutic effects. The researchers found participants who played the game over 4 weeks improved the subjects’ memory and cognitive skills.

Gazzaley went on the start Akili in 2011, under the tutelage of life sciences start-up accelerator PureTech Ventures in Boston. The company is applying Gazzaley’s concepts to detection and treatment of cognitive deficits, but to a broader population, including children.

Akili’s first program is a platform called EVO that uses a tablet- or smartphone-based electronic game to test multi-tasking skills. EVO requires players to guide a friendly alien down a river, while tapping the screen when a designated animal appears. The company says the game gets progressively more difficult, automatically adapting to the player’s ability level, and capturing progress by the participant.

The clinical trial aims to recruit 125 individuals, age 8 to 16, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and attention deficits. Sites for the trial are expected to be selected later this year. Autism Speaks says the EVO project, supported by Delsia, could serve as a model for other technology-based therapies for autism.

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