Breakthrough Patient Recruitment

: Notes from BrainFutures 2015

Notes from BrainFutures 2015


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 cognitive decline. 

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!

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