How video games may help treat ADHD

Apr 16, 2014 at 12:00 p.m. ET

It seems counter-intuitive to anyone who has even known — or parented — a child with ADHD, but using a video game to teach kids to pay attention is a real thing. Find out why it works and what it may mean for the future of ADHD treatment.

Boy playing video games |
Photo credit: Neustockimages/iStock/360/Getty Images

Have you ever tried to get your child’s attention while he’s deeply involved in playing a video game? Unless there’s a promise of food involved, chances are you will have a hard time getting him to disengage from the game and listen to you. What if you could turn that intense concentration around and focus it on other important things, like homework and studying? Turns out, researchers think that maybe you can.

What they studied

Researchers wanted to see if they could use a video game to hone in on children’s brainwaves and train them to recognize when they were paying attention. A team led by Dr. Naomi Steiner, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center set out to test 104 elementary school children in three separate groups. The first group would receive 40 half-hour sessions of neurofeedback, the second group would receive 40 sessions of cognitive therapy and the third group received no treatment at all.

Neurofeedback is the process of measuring brain waves and giving immediate feedback to the participant. The group of kids who were assigned neurofeedback sessions wore bicycle helmets that had been fitted with special sensors for measuring brain waves. When people are paying attention, the theta wave activity in their brains decreases and the beta waves increase. They were asked to perform a variety of tasks on the computer, one involving a cartoon dolphin. If the theta waves were high — showing that the kids were paying attention — the dolphin on the screen would dive to the bottom of the sea.

Why does it work?

When your child struggles with ADHD, it may be difficult for him to recognize exactly what it means to pay attention. Neurofeedback is immediate and tangible, and through repetitive training it becomes easier for participants to recognize what it is to be “paying attention” to something. When kids get feedback on what their brain is doing, it is "like turning on a light switch," said Dr. Steiner. "Kids said 'Oh, this is what people mean when they tell me to pay attention.'"

Results showed promise

Six months later, parents provided a follow up of ADHD symptoms to researchers and the results were impressive. The group that participated in neurofeedback still showed signs of lasting improvement. The kids in the other two groups needed increases in their medications, but the neurofeedback group did not need any medication increase. While these results are encouraging, some are skeptical of the fact that the results were reported by parents and may be distorted by a placebo effect. "It is good news," says Dr. Anthony Rostain, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not affiliated with this study. "But the results were modest. It's not a magic bullet. It's not going to replace medication."

Bottom line

While neurofeedback might not be the cure to end ADHD, these findings are encouraging — and give us a small window into how the brain of someone with ADHD might work. Maybe neurofeedback, in conjunction with medication, might eventually be considered a standard therapy for ADHD treatment.

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