There are 16 million kids in the United States with behavioral problems like ADHD or autism spectrum, says Jason Kahn, CEO and founder of Neuro’motion. Of those 16 million, the majority – 12 million – get no treatment. That’s why Kahn’s company developed a video game to help these kids build the emotional strength they need to live productive, happy lives.
Behavioral problems start a cycle for kids and their families, says Kahn, who is also a research associate at Boston Children’s Hospital. He notes that kids with behavioral problems can start to isolate socially and academically and then they have a hard time keeping up.
“[Behavioral problems] push kids farther down the path. The social stress just builds and builds. Families are desperate for help, and it’s hard to find,” Kahn says.
For the 4 million kids who are getting help today, many of those only get medication, says Kahn. And while medication can be helpful for kids with behavioral problems, there are certain classes of medication that can cause toxic long-term side effects, such as diabetes and weight gain. Kahn has also found that there are many parents who are “trepidatious” about using medication to treat their child’s behavioral needs.
Neuro’motion has a prototype game called “RAGE-Control,” which stands for Regulate and Gain Emotional Control. The game functions much like the “Space Invaders” game, where the player has to shoot aliens to win. RAGE-Control engages kids – typically between the ages of 10 and 18 – in playing the fast-paced game, while also helping them learn how to manage their emotions.
Before the start of the game, a threshold is set for a child’s heart rate, which is measured while they play; if their heart rate gets too high, their ability to shoot the aliens (“the bad guys”) is shut off. It’s important to note that the game itself doesn’t get shut off, says Kahn. “Rather, the aliens keep falling, and the kid is actually losing the video game if their heart rate is too high. What they have to do very quickly is figure out how they’re going to calm themselves down.”
The game works because of how our brains are wired, Kahn explains. In the brain of a typically functioning person, the prefrontal cortex can regulate the amygdala, which triggers the “fight or flight” reflex in response to a new experience. For individuals with behavioral and emotional regulation issues, these areas of the brain may need to be trained more extensively.
Therapists can use RAGE-Control along with coaching to help patients better control their emotions, but Kahn says it’s also a good idea to give kids the space they need to figure out to calm themselves down. “There’s no right way to control your emotions,” says Kahn. “There’s only your way to control your emotions. This turns out to be a fairly powerful interaction.”
Kahn’s ultimate goal is that kids will take the lessons they’re learning in the video game and translate those to their daily lives.
Kahn and his team have conducted two research studies at Boston Children’s Hospital with this game – first with a group of 10 children in an inpatient setting and then with a group of 20 children in an outpatient setting – and they’ve proven that kids who play RAGE-Control (and receive coaching) can better calm themselves down in stressful situations.
“How well the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are connected tells you a lot about how kids respond emotionally,” says Kahn, who notes that this type of brain functioning can also serve as a good predictor for academic achievement at age 18. But it’s not destiny, says Kahn. “You hear people talk about the elasticity of the brain. These skills can be gained.”
Neuro’motion’s goals are ambitious and far-reaching, and backed by several big names at Boston Children’s Hospital: Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich and Alexander Rotenberg, both physicians; and Peter Ducharme, a licensed social worker.
“We want to really reinvent mental health access and treatment across the board,” says Kahn. “This is a really great solution for emotional intervention, and we want to put this product into as many hands as possible.”
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