Adam Gazzalay

What’s the state of the art of improving cognition? Take a 60 year old with attention impairment. Well, he’s unlikely to get functional brain imaging. So, he’ll be diagnosed and given a drug. Right now we do not have a precisely targeted drug for improving cognition. So, we have to increase dosage to the point we have side-effects – so we spend 80% of our time treating those side-effects.

Prescriptions are not personalised to people’s modes, and are almost always unimodal – drugs, not lifestyle factors. It’s not a cloud loop system, where you prescribe, analyse, and change rapidly. We have a loose, open loop system instead.

Similar issues exist in the education world.

Gaming the brain

Where does gaming fit in? Well, gaming has become mainstream, spreading through the age ranges. They’re often highly immersive, high reward settings. Back around 2003, studies started showing cognitive boosts from playing these games.

So… could you take the violence out of these games, and still create the positive cognitive changes? They reached out to LucasArts, and built Neuroracer with them. In the game you had to both drive, and do a sign task. Both of the tasks scale to the level of your ability through an algorithm. People tend to focus on one skill set or another – so they limited levelling up to points where you’re improving both tasks.

Your multi-tasking performance peaks at 23, and decays from there. They started using EEG to analyse what was happening in people’s brains while they were playing the game. It showed that, in older people, there was both a degradation in ability, and a reduction in brain activity when compared to people in their 20s. Yet, when they played in the multitasking mode for a while, their performance and brain activity increases rapidly. And those regained skills don’t fade quickly.

This research has led them to the cover of Nature.

Commercialising the research

Brain Activity

Where now? Well they need to bridge the gap between academics and business, and build something that’s a commercial product, not an experiment. Project Evo is the result – the same basic task sets, but with much better art, music and storytelling. And they can up the challenge of the tasks to drive cognition changes.

It’s not been released as a product yet – the company is putting it through the sort of tests that a drug would go through, to check for possible side effects.

Empty Lab syndrome

Meanwhile, not he has an “empty nest” lab, he’s working on a new project. He’s built a neurophysiology lab. They’re playing with virtual reality and nation capture, to see what they can achieve.

Four examples:

  • Body brain trainer aims to challenge cognitive abilities and the body at the same time. Is training you brain in an embodied way more useful? They’re aiming to find out.
  • Our brains are rhythmic machines. Many cultures have used rhythm therapeutically. Can we do the same?
  • Attention
  • Meditrain – takes the principles of meditation and integrates it with the game principles of adaptivity. They’re working with Zynga to build a game that helps you self-regulate.

From January these become research activities. The games act as a delivery system that allows them to test these ideas in a reproducable way.

The real win will be in five years when these all interact with each other – the birth of euro crossfit…

Closing the loop

They’re already using closed loops to use bio-feedback to change the game as you play it. But could you focus the game to target particular brain issues like a gamma knife.

Could we start dropping doses of drugs, and start using targeted, personalised brain-training games, with multiple closed loops to treat cognitive issues? Could we do this by 2019?

The relationships to do this – and the research to support it – have already begun.