Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Dr. Adam Gazzaley: Gaming and Brain (OHSU Brain Awareness Series)

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Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) is a leading research and teaching institution located in Portland. They run a speaker series every year, with this year’s presentations centered on the brain. I’d forgotten to put the talk in my Outlook calendar, so I was very happy to receive a reminder message earlier Monday.

Our Speaker

The speaker, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, is a member of the faculty at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and, as required by California state law, a co-founder of and adviser to a start-up company. That company, Akili Interactive Labs, produces games designed to provide cognitive benefits to players who play the games for 30-minute sessions three times a week over the course of a month or two. Gazzaley is an engaging speaker, though it seems like he’s spent a lot of his recent appearances speaking more about ideas and vision than hard science. As another attendee remarked in the lobby after the talk, “His presentation was more like a performance than a science lecture.” That approach isn’t surprising, given that he co-founded a company and has to compete for investment funds, so I didn’t think it was a problem.

I have to admit that my heart sank a bit when I realized the presentation focused on brain training using games. Lumosity recently agreed to pay a $2 million fine to settle a U.S. Federal Trade Commission deceptive advertising action that claimed the company’s brain games could help students and seniors improve mental performance. Gazzaley was quick to point out that Akili’s games are going through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process, with their first game ready to move from a pilot program step to wider public testing. Unlike Lumosity’s claims and those of “nutraceutical” supplements (available in stores throughout the U.S. or your favorite multi-level marketing scheme) which make claims that have not been evaluated by the FDA, Akili is going through the rigorous, some would say onerous, testing required by the FDA before it will back up claims of a product’s efficacy. Gazzaley emphasized that if the games don’t pass FDA trials the first time around, they’ll revise them and try again.

Works in Progress

Gazzaley showed several games that combine motor skills and recognition tasks. The game that’s farthest along in testing is a driving game where the player attempts to keep a vehicle centered on a winding road using a joystick. The player must also press the joystick’s button when the vehicle passes under a sign that displays a designated symbol from a set of possible designs. The game’s adaptive algorithms increase or decrease the difficulty level based on the player’s performance, with the goal of encouraging an upward path. The player must switch between the two tasks — as switching becomes more fluid, their score increases. Gazzaley noted that “humans love to level up” regardless of age, a finding borne out by gamification research, so games are a natural mode for brain training.

He also noted that there is the possibility games can be used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, ADHD, and other conditions. While his work on games as treatment is still in the very early stages, there is the potential for significant advances. This research program will benefit from new devices such as Oculus Rift or Microsoft’s HoloLens, which generate virtual reality spaces in which a player may act. There are also interesting new neurological measurement devices, such as a whole-head electroencephalogram (EEG) helmet that transmits data to a waiting computer, that can provide researchers additional flexibility in measuring brain activity. I also see great potential for other serious game applications involving teams, such as squad-level military exercises or firefighting, though Dr. Gazzaley said that he’s not aware of any work yet in that area.

Conclusion

I enjoyed Dr. Gazzaley’s presentation. Yes, it was a little flashier and a little less sciencey than other talks I’ve attended, but he provided a lot of useful information and compelling demonstrations that made the hour fly by. I will definitely follow his work in the coming years.

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