Playing the Game: New ADHD Treatment Could be a Total Game-Changer

A new treatment for children with ADHD could see a drug-free approach if the FDA approves...



The Wall Street Journal reports that Akili Interactive Labs Inc. of Boston, formed by start-up-creating firm PureTech Ventures, and San Francisco company, Brain Plasticity Inc. are seeking FDA approval for a new treatment for ADHD.

What is particularly innovative about this new treatments is that it is not a new wonder-drug without any side-effects (well, in a way it is). It is a video-game, which, working through the principle of neuroplasticity, targets the prefrontal cortex and visual and motor parts of the brain in order to strengthen the patient’s ability to concentrate and ignore distractions.

Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, there are still some issues that will need to be overcome, the first, according to Dr Gentile, a developmental psychologist at Iowa State University, being a concern over what we mean what we say ‘attention’; Gentile highlights the problem that games usually train types of attention that could be different to the ones that teachers need. That is, the ability to concentrate for long periods of time on a potentially tedious task. To be honest, I think this idea does the many brilliant teachers out there a disservice, but even if we accept this idea that ‘school = dull’, then, as the good doctor says, this is a ‘design challenge’. It’s not a checkmate.

Nevertheless, there are other problems that might be out of the designers’ hands. Writing in Pharma Marketing Blog, John Mack, otherwise known as Pharmaguy, highlights three ‘fat chance’ obstacles that would have to be overcome for the treatment to make its way into the marketplace and then to become mainstream.

The first of these is the likelihood of getting FDA approval. As The Wall Street Journal points out, the ‘FDA has never approved a videogame as a medical therapy’. But to therefore consider this a non-starter, would be short-sighted. For a start, as Mack points out, ‘with such experienced drug industry veterans as partners, Akili might have a chance of making it to the FDA.’ Secondly, until fairly recently, we might not have imagined the FDA approving medical apps – and yet that is exactly what they are working on right now. We need to keep reminding ourselves that history doesn’t always equal destiny.

Next on Mack’s list of fat chances is the idea that patients ‘will pay for a game treatment after being conditioned all these years to think only of drugs as treatments’. But is this true? Just a cursory glance online tells us that there is a substantial groundswell of public opinion (for examples see here, here and here) that is uneasy about medicating children so heavily; might they not welcome a game as an alternative. 

Finally, Mack doles out a ‘fat chance’ to the idea that ‘physicians will prescribe the game to their patients’ since it would ‘require overturning the entire drug-physician industrial complex’. Granted, this might be slightly more complicated, but again, I reach for the concept that history need not be destiny. Why couldn’t the drug-physician industrial complex be overhauled? After all, it’s not that huge a shift, when one considers that the basic channels will still remain the same; it’s only what would be travelling down those channels that would be shifting.

Akili means wisdom in Swahili; I think it would be wise if the pharma industry were to watch this one closely. It could be a total game-changer.


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