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Brain researcher Adam Gazzaley has published research in the scientific journal Nature that shows how a video game has helped the cognitive function of older people in the emerging field of neuro-therapeutics.

The research shows that prototype game NeuroRacer helped older people improve their ability to handle more than one task at a time. It did so by getting them to focus on catching fish and racing through a watery obstacle course at the same time. Brain games have long billed themselves as having cognitive benefits. But Gazzaley’s research shows that if a game is tailored to address a precise cognitive deficit, such as the ability for older people to multitask, it can be effective.

That finding, published in the esteemed research journal, is being further developed by Boston-based Akili Interactive Labs, which was started by researchers Gazzaley, the founding director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center of the University of California at San Francisco, and Daphne Bavelier, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Geneva. Both are advisers to Akili, but Gazzaley’s research paper is independent of the company.

The researchers’ work is part of a larger effort — started many years ago with Nintendo’s Brain Age game — to create neurogames that have real benefits for society. But while many companies have taken up this cause, such as Lumos Labs and Advanced Brain Monitoring, few have gone to the trouble of doing clinical research.


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Gazzaley’s research team showed that by training older adults to process interruptions in the game over the course of a dozen hours of play in a month, the players became better at the game and they saw generalized improvements in their cognitive abilities overall. The subjects improved so much that they had higher scores than untrained 20-year-olds. The skills remained six months later without more practice.

Now the Akili team led by Matthew Omernick, the executive creative director and former art head at LucasArts, will work on turning the game into a commercial product. That game will compete with a number of other apps that focus on brain training, but it will have the advantage of being crafted in a way that is known to have benefits for older players, said Eddie Martucci, the vice president of research at Akili, in an interview with GamesBeat.

“We want to take the cutting-edge science, go through a strong medical process, and do that in a form that is an engaging video game,” Martucci said. “Our motto is better science, better games.”

Akili is going to work on pilot studies that will do focused research on larger groups of people. The company hopes to create a Unity 3D-based game that will eventually be recommended by health care providers in taking care of older patients.

Eric Elenko, the acting chief business officer at Akili and a partner at PureTech Ventures, said that the company was formed in 2011 with PureTech’s help. Akili has six employees. Like NeuroRacer, Akili’s game overlays two tasks on top of each other: a fine motor skill task, combined with a sensory perception task. That helps a person develop better mental flexibility, which can be generalized into broader benefits. Both skills are important for daily tasks such as reading a newspaper or cooking a meal.

“It looks and feels like a lot of video games” with brain training as a focus, Martucci said. “But under the hood, it has a specific, cognitive engine. We think this game will have utility for anyone who is weak in executive functions.”

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