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Video games could help treat cognitive disorders like depression and ADHD


Video games can amuse or distract, sometimes inspire, which means they engage the brain with tasks. So some researchers are hoping video games could help treat cognitive disorders from depression and ADHD to mental decline from aging. Keller Gordon reported about this for Welcome, Keller.

KELLER GORDON, BYLINE: Hi, Rob. Thanks for having me.

SCHMITZ: Keller, you start by describing a video game developed at a lab at the University of Utah. Tell us about that.

GORDON: Yeah. So this isn't a game you get on the app store or PlayStation or anything like that. It's from a federally funded nonprofit lab that makes games dedicated to treating cognitive disorders, mostly those in aging brains. I spoke with Dr. Sarah Morimoto, who runs this program called Neurogrow. It doesn't exactly look like a normal video game. You've got a basic, colorful screen, and you might have to complete certain tasks, like watering a flower with a certain color watering can before time runs out. It's got a pretty rudimentary design, but it challenges a patient's memory and reaction time. And it's not supposed to be fun. It's therapy. But Dr. Morimoto thinks the results are promising.

SARAH MORIMOTO: I definitely feel like the science has been greatly advanced by working with video game researchers and designers.

SCHMITZ: So, Keller, that's the researcher. What do her patients say? What did you hear from them?

GORDON: Yeah. I spoke with Pete and Pam Stevens about their experience using the Neurogrow program. Pam had suffered a stroke in 2014 and wasn't responding to medication. Her neurologist gave them a pretty grim prognosis.

PETE STEVENS: He on two separate occasions over a two-year period had said there was nothing we could do. Just take her home and be prepared. She's going to die.


GORDON: Yeah, it's pretty rough. But they weren't ready to give up. They found out about Morimoto's program in 2018. And after a few Neurogrow sessions, Pam would be exhausted, like she had just finished a workout. But it was helping. Now, Pam didn't say much to me in our interview. But Pete says he started noticing improvements in her mental health. Before our interview, Pete mentioned that Pam was actually reading a book on cognitive behavioral therapy.

SCHMITZ: Wow. That's a really good sign. So that's a government-funded project. Are private companies getting into video game therapy as well?

GORDON: Yeah. Let me tell you about one of them. There is Akili Interactive Labs, a very different organization with very different funding. They developed a game called EndeavorRx. This looks more like a popular mobile game, like Subway Surfers, or a game that's actually, you know, supposed to be fun.


GORDON: And the FDA actually gave EndeavorRx their blessing. They classified it as something that could be used to treat inattention in children with ADHD. But there are also critics. Some scientists call it a marketing ploy. They say patients who play the game will only really get better at playing games like it, like Mario Kart. Here's how Eddie Martucci, CEO of Akili, responded to that criticism.

EDDIE MARTUCCI: I think the reason there's skepticism is people have been burned by, like, marketing gimmicks, especially in digital health and especially in neuroscience and areas like ADHD. There's been a lot of snake oil, and over time, skepticism has dramatically decreased as we continue to research and show data.

SCHMITZ: So that makes sense. But where is this all going? Are we getting to the point where you will see video games prescribed by a doctor?

GORDON: Well, theoretically, the FDA has already allowed that for EndeavorRx. The company behind it got hundreds of millions of new capital in a merger. Dr. Morimoto's lab - again, out of a university - is very different. They follow an academic path. And Neurogrow is an experimental therapy that's still only available to a few patients. But they've got a lot of government funding - a $7.5 million grant. So watch this space. It's very likely to keep growing.

SCHMITZ: We will continue to watch. That's Kelly Gordon, who contributes to NPR's video game coverage. Thank you so much, Keller.

GORDON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBUTE IF FKJ'S "TUI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Keller Gordon