This startup wants to submit its game to the FDA as a treatment for mental illness

Last fall, 75 neurocognitive scientists signed an open letter written to video game publishers who make “brain training” games and apps. In the letter, the signees argued that, by and large, the promises made by the publishers that their games could improve players’ cognitive functions were without scientific merit. While letter did not specifically call any one game out in particular, it’s possible that its author(s) were writing in response to the popularity of games like Brain Age, a wildly popular game for the Nintendo DS, or Lumosity, a suite of brain-training games available for iOS and Android.

“Consumers are told that playing brain games will make them smarter, more alert, and able to learn faster and better,” the letter argued. “In other words, the promise is that if you adhere to a prescribed regimen of cognitive exercise, you will reduce cognitive slowing and forgetfulness, and will fundamentally improve your mind and brain.”

Those promises, the letter reasoned, were little more than predatory attempts at capitalizing on older peoples’ fears of aging and the subsequent memory loss that might come along with it.

Almost a year after the letter was published by the Stanford Center for Longevity, Adam Gazzaley, one of the signatories, is now hard at work crafting a series of video games designed to bolster executive brain function. The key difference between his team’s games and the kind you can buy in a mobile app store? Gazzaley wants to submit his titles to the Food and Drug Administration for strenuous clinical testing.

“Instead of having a patient come in, receiving a therapeutic, like a pill, going home, and having them subjectively monitor the impact and come back months later and report that,” Gazzaley explained to KQED. “Here we have the ability to track in real time what the impact of this therapeutic is.”

Gazzaley’s Startup, Akili, is currently working on early versions of a gaming engine that would be able to measure study participants’ baseline cognitive control, track their cognitive development as they play games, and ultimately help players strengthen their neural functioning. Neuroracer, one of Akili’s games that’s currently in development, is built around the idea of encouraging players to be constantly multitasking as they’re playing the game.

Most brain training games involve completing computational tasks like adding and subtracting while racing against a timer. While these games have been shown to familiarize players on basic arithmetic for short periods of time, there’s little evidence that prolonged gameplay does much else for broader cognitive function like general memory retention.

Games like Neuroracer, Akili claims, are designed to incorporate elements that challenge the three components to cognitive functioning: goal management, working memory, and attention. Because these classes are interconnected with one another, Gazzaley explained, improving one or two of them simultaneously with the demands of the video game could help improve cognition as a whole.

From Gazzaley’s perspective, video games providing real-time feedback to researchers could be much more effective treatments for certain mental health issues as compared to the pharmaceutical drugs that he refers to as “blunt instruments.”

Currently, Akili has four other games in the works that it hopes to someday submit to the FDA for approved use as a medical device. The process could take years to complete and millions of dollars to see through but, if successful, could change the way we treat mental disorders.