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Prescription video games may be the future of medicine

A new episode of Next Level explores whether certain video games can improve cognitive function

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“Brain-training” games have been a controversial topic in recent years, especially after a group of scientists and researchers published an open letter in 2014 saying there is “very little evidence” that training your brain in one area or on one task offers improvement in other areas of cognitive function. Shortly afterward, another group of scientists wrote a rebuttal to that, claiming that a “substantial and growing body of evidence shows that certain cognitive-training regimens can significantly improve cognitive function, including in ways that generalize to everyday life.” 

Which is what makes the efforts of a company called Akili — along with the University of California, San Fransisco’s Neuroscape lab — so interesting. Akili is a Boston-based tech company that has used Neuroscape’s core technology to develop a mobile game called Project: EVO. The goal is make Project: EVO so powerful, that it could potentially help treat children with ADHD — as a prescription-based video game.

In order to validate the game in a way that other brain-training companies haven’t, Akili has to go through all of the trials and processes that are required by the FDA for any kind of drug or medical device. The game is currently in phase III clinical trials, which means this isn’t a done deal yet. But if Akili is successful, it will have created the first prescription-based video game in the US, and in doing so, would essentially create a new category of “digital medicine.”

So for this episode of Next Level, we first went behind the scenes into the Neuroscape lab at UCSF. Lead by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley (pictured above), the team at Neuroscape has spent the past 12 years incubating and testing video game technology that could be used to support treatment of brain disorders such as ADHD, autism, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and more. We then visited Akili’s Northern California offices and spoke with co-founder and chief creative officer Matt Omernick, who, prior to Akili, was executive art director at LucasArts. I was curious to find out exactly how Akili plans to turn Project: EVO into a prescription-based game.

Akili has licensed technology from the Neuroscape lab to develop a game that the company hopes will become a prescription video game

And yes, I had the chance to play all of these games, including Akili’s Project: EVO, Neuroscape’s Body Brain Trainer, and a still-in-development game called Labyrinth, which involved an HTC Vive and a Virtuix Omni platform. (I can’t report feeling any smarter afterward; I only used them for brief periods of time.)

Gazzaley, Omernick, and others I spoke to are all very much aware of the controversy surrounding their area of work, but made points to say how their efforts are different. For one, Gazzaley says, Neuroscape tries to “reach beyond gamified exercises and create engaging and immersive video game experiences. We are increasingly integrating both cognitive challenges and physical movement,” he said, which is something I can attest to, because the physically challenging games I played were certainly different than sitting at a computer screen and trying to switch tasks.

“I think it’s just that the evidence hasn’t been clearly shown yet and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” Akili’s Omernick said, when I questioned him on the efficacy of brain-training games. “We all believe strongly that it’s very true. It’s just a matter of showing the data.”