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Train Your Brain Through a Video Game: The Akili Prescription

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Akili’s Project EVO is a video game that could help you train your brain. All photos provided.

What if brain training technology could be noninvasive, clinically effective and engaging? That’s the question Eddie Martucci and Eric Elenko asked themselves in 2011. Both men had an interest in the brain – in modulating the central nervous system, to be exact. But all the existing options for cognitive improvement seemed to be invasive procedures or talk therapy. So in an effort to help people train their brains in a new way, Martucci and Elenko decided to look toward the entertainment world.

“At the time, digital tech was booming. So we said, how can we leverage that for medical products to make real impacts on patients in a new way?” Martucci says. “We decided to focus specifically on video games, which provide engagement and enjoyment. They’re excellent delivery vehicles – you have automatic compliance and lots of data.”

Martucci and Elenko matched an interest in gaming technology with neuroscience and began to meet with top neuroscientists and game designers to explore their options. This was the birth of Akili, a start-up company based out of Boston which aims, according to their website, to “build clinically-validated cognitive therapeutics, assessments and diagnostics that look and feel like high quality video games.” The Akili team hopes to deliver technologies that can be deployed to any patient, anywhere, any time, prescribed and tracked by physicians and developed at a fraction of the cost of traditional medical approaches.

Akili was co-founded under the umbrella of PureTech, a science and technology development venture firm where Elenko is a partner. Elenko is also on Akili’s board. Martucci is currently the COO of Akili, where he works with four other businessmen, designers and researchers. They started slow, initially building a game development team to study the effects of neuroscience-based gaming technology. The founders called their creation ‘Project EVO,’ and its effects were eventually published last year in the journal Nature. The study, titled ‘Gaming improves multitasking skills,’ propelled Akili forward quickly.

Fast forward to today and Akili is still riding on that science-backed wave. Project EVO produces hundreds of data points per day and the technology has received attention from big-name partners in the areas of AHDH, Alzheimer’s and depression. In the game itself – the foundation of Project EVO – Martucci explains that players drive an alien down a river. The program adapts and personalizes depending on who’s playing the game. “It feels familiar,” Martucci says. “People report that it feels like a game you’d expect. Only under the hood, there’s a complex cognitive engine.”

Players drive their characters down the river, navigating challenges and collecting fish.

Players drive their characters down the river, navigating challenges and collecting fish.

That cognitive engine hinges on the way people deal with cognitive interference. The game replicates the distractors and interuptors that we’re all faced with daily, Elenko and Martucci explain. The ways in which we respond to those distractors can help us thrive or cause us to struggle, which is why the game helps people increase what scientists call “process interference” – the ability to deal with distractors effectively.

“In the Nature study, we saw an improvement in goal-centered tasks and executive functions,” Elenko says. Basically, the game helps people to effectively manage the things that come at them – and it works.

Soon, Elenko also says that he hopes to use the technology as a diagnostic tool, too. “We’re using our platform as a high resolution data tool to enable better remote assessments of neural conditions,” he says. “When someone plays this game, they’re highly engaged and on task, so the data is both high energy and high quality.”

Akili’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent months, likely due in part to the cost reduction that the gaming technology offers. While one session of cognitive behavioral therapy can cost a patient up to $70 per hour, Akili’s easily downloadable games are often free or come at an incredibly low cost, depending on their insurance plan. Right now, Akili’s gaming products are only available through clinicians, but, pending completed clinical trials, they may soon be available for anyone to download.

Elenko admits that Akili’s product comes in a rush of other healthcare technology products – but he also says that Akili’s scientific backing sets the gaming technology apart from other apps and programming. “We want this to be something that providers are comfortable distributing,” he says. “Technically, there is no reason why we couldn’t put this on the app store tomorrow for everyone to buy. But we want to continue to empiracally demonstrate a benefit. It’s important for this field of research to mature, and for digital to move into a healthcare-specific market.”

Jenni Whalen

Jenni Whalen

    Jenni Whalen is the Executive Assistant of Editorial at Upworthy. She was previously MedTech Boston's Managing Editor and has an MS in Journalism from Boston University, as well as a BA in Psychology from Bucknell University. Whalen has written for Greatist, Boston magazine, AZ Central Healthy Living and the New England Journal of Medicine, among other places. She has also worked as a conference planner, ghost writer, researcher and content developer.

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