Using Games to Train Our Brains: In Conversation With Dr. Adam Gazzaley

Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley at his lab at UCSF  (Christopher Michel / Flickr)

Apps and gaming companies have claimed for years that video games can improve our cognitive function.

But not all games are created equal. Just one company, Boston-based Akili Interactive Labs, has plans to submit its video game for regulatory approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The makers of the game hope to someday help children and young adults with autism improve their brain function and motor skills.

[Related: Play This Video Game and Call Me in the Morning.]

Last month, I sat down with University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist and "chief game designer" Dr. Adam Gazzaley to discuss the evolving role of video games. Gazzaley runs a lab at UCSF, where he oversees a small group of neuroscientists, researchers and gamers. He also advises the team at Akili Interactive Labs.

Screen shot from the frozen world of Project: Evo. The game could be the first to be approved for medical use by the FDA.
Screen shot from the frozen world of Project: Evo. The game could be the first to be approved for medical use by the FDA. (Akili )

My primary takeaway from the conversation is that it's still early days for the field of neuroscience and gaming. It's not yet clear whether games will help some people and not others, or whether the effects will be positive or negative. But Gazzaley seemed optimistic that a focus on the science will yield positive results -- as long as we don't get swept up by the hype!

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The evening was hosted by the Commonwealth Club of California. 

Listen to the full talk via the podcast or read on for an condensed and edited version of my discussion with Gazzaley. Note: Some of the questions below were drawn from the audience.

What's a typical day like in your lab at UCSF? 

I would say that most of my time is really spent building [products]. I have the role of "chief game designer" at my lab, which is sort of a weird thing after getting an MD and becoming a neurologist... A lot of [my time at the lab] is spent going over data, trying to interpret it, and meeting with companies to form alliances. We hope they develop amazing technology in our lab so we don't have to wait ten years [to access it], as many neuroscientists do.

Were you a hardcore gamer as a kid? 

It's funny to think back on those days. I was an intense game player when I was seven or eight. Half of what we were doing is figuring out how to take apart the code and make it better. I stopped [playing games] when I was in medical school and college. The fact that they [science and gaming] came together in my adult life as powerfully as they have is completely unanticipated, but a lot of fun.

Have you noticed that there's a demographic, like men versus women, that tends to respond best to video games and show the most cognitive improvement?

We don't know yet as our studies are very early. It's not the type of data that drives me to say this is a prescription, but I think there's a signal that we can continue to improve.

We don't have very large populations -- that's the next study. We don't have enough numbers to say whether women or men or what age group responds better, but we know that not everyone responds the same. We know that there's some element of motivation and engagement to it, among so many factors.

What's your opinion on brain training games, like Lumosity? Are there any that you'd recommend?

I always try to be diplomatic about these type of questions. There is some controversy about what works and [what] doesn't work. But the field rests on the premise that the brain is plastic and can change. The foundation is solid.

But the devil is in the details. It's [the brain is] plastic, but it's also very stable....Not everything will harness plasticity. And plasticity has no morality -- it can go positive or negative, meaning not everything will lead to a meaningful change.

The challenge is to find those things that can engender that [positive change]. The second challenge is to validate this. It took us five years for our first study. We are in our infancy in this field, but the bar will continue to be raised -- and we want to keep pushing that... All fields struggle with this steep curve at the beginning where people get excited and claims get out of proportion.

Is there any chance that Mario Kart [a popular game from Nintendo] might improve something?

Sure. Video games are a massive category... and growing all the time. Men and women play games; many heads of households and six-year-olds play games. Studies have found that regular off-the-shelf games can have some benefits on cognition. But what's the right dose and what are the negative effects? Those are reasonable questions to ask.

Last year, dozens of scientists issued “The Consensus on the Brain Training Industry From the Scientific Community,” a statement denouncing the claims made by some game companies and the media that games can forestall Alzheimer’s and other diseases. You signed that statement -- why? 

I did it to challenge the field and to be a bit more cautious. I do think that we need to go a little slower and really figure out what works and doesn't work. There's something exciting here and I'd hate to see the baby get thrown out with the bath water... People signed it for different reasons... but my own  inspiration was to try to move some of the excitement back to the science domain and say 'let's figure out how to do this right.'

The company you're advising is going after FDA approval. Do you see that as being the norm? 

Prediction is a dangerous job, but it does seem like there's a growing interest from labs and companies to consider this pathway for these unique tech tools. You only need FDA approval when you have a clear clinical indication... but you don't need it for a game that [claims to] help your memory. That's complicated because they're both a  recommendation, but that's the way it is right now.

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Listen to the rest of the talk here. 

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