I recently attended BrainFutures 2015,
sponsored by the Mental Health
Association of Maryland. The conference brought together
experts and innovators in the brain research field with mental
health practitioners and advocates. The mission of the conference
was to move the conversation about how to integrate new ideas and
technologies into behavioral health and wellness practice.
In nearly every industry, technology has been embraced,
championed, and deemed essential. Even in somatic care, the array
of technologies and devices to diagnose, treat, and then maintain
health and wellness grows daily. So the application of research on
neuroplasticity, personalized medicine, and advances in
neurotechnology to the needs of those struggling with behavioral
and brain health issues would seem like a no-brainer (pun
intended!), right? I spent two days listening to some of the most
brilliant brains in the field talking about how everyone's brain
can be healthier. Through gaming, nutrition, meditation,
neurofeedback, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and movement, we
can improve neuroplasticity, treat brain illnesses, and prevent
In this post, I want to focus on innovations in gaming. Stanford
neuroscientist Brian Sutton-Smith was quoted by one of the
presenters, and what he said really struck me: "
The absence of play is not work--it is depression." We have
known since Piaget that play and learning are intertwined in early
development, but the idea that play could also serve as a
preventative health tool, as well as a prescription for brain
health is significant. Wouldn't you be more likely to "take your
medicine" if one of the side effects was fun?
Going way beyond current Internet fads to play games to improve
cognitive skills, researchers at the conference presented data to
support the use of NeuroGaming for brain health. Dr. Adam Gazzaley
spoke about one day prescribing
video games to treat mental health problems. He made compelling
arguments for using closed-loop systems incorporating neurofeedback
and non-invasive electrical brain stimulation to modify and enhance
games to target a patient's specific needs. Dr. Gazzaley's research
has applications to dementia and Alzheimer's disease, as well as
ADHD, autism, and depression.
Dr. Jane McGonigal, a concussion survivor who personally
experienced significant depression and suicidal ideation,
talked about creating a game for herself that helped her
recover. She became Jane the Concussion Slayer. Her motto,
"live gamefully," infuses her program SuperBetter, which is
offered free to anyone open to adopting a "gameful" mindset.
Utilizing the skills learned through gaming, Dr. McGonigal offers a
tool designed to address depression, anxiety, and achieving goals.
The game is based on and incorporates brain science and has even
gone through the rigors of a randomized controlled study at the
University of Pennsylvania.
In addition, Dr. Jocelyn Faubert's NeuroTracker not only provides
a 3D visual exercise to improve attention and focus, but also a
tool to aid in concussion management. This has applications for
sports, ADHD and the military. It acts like a game, but improves
working memory, attention, and visual processing ability.
What clinician wouldn't want to have an intervention that a
patient could do on an app outside of the session-one that can be
monitored on a computer for the desired effect and that could
change and modify itself to fits a patient's needs? I confess to
being in awe of techy stuff and how amazing it is, but more than
just the novelty of bright new shiny toys is the belief that these
innovations can jump the hurdles of regulatory approvals, clinician
apprehension about new things, and end cost to users-our patients
and clinics-bringing new hope and healing to some of the nearly 40
million Americans who suffer from mental illness.
So let's hope these scientists keep playing!