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Thursday, 24 August, 2000, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
Video games help hyperactive children
Video games can help keep hyperactive children calm
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Nasa scientists are using computer games and biofeedback to treat children that are hyperactive or have an attention deficit disorder (ADD).

The academics at the Langley Research Centre in Virginia say the treatment helps the children train their brains to concentrate more and focus their attention.

The feedback technique also has the potential to help over-stressed people cope with the most trying of circumstances.

The Nasa scientists even believe it might help them train fighter pilots to remain calm in combat situations.

ADD children have a deficiency of high-frequency brainwave signals

Alan Pope, Nasa Langley

Alan Pope, a senior research scientist at Nasa Langley, and Dr Olafur Palsson, psychiatry professor at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, are pioneering the technique of using biofeedback and computer games to treat children with attention deficit disorders.

Brainwave box

The treatment involves monitoring the brainwaves of children and trying to get them to modify brain activity that helps them concentrate.

"ADD children to a great extent have a deficiency of high-frequency brainwave signals," said Mr Pope adding that this deficiency has been implicated in reducing their attention span.

In unaffected children these high-frequency brainwaves are thought to be responsible for co-ordinating mental activity and helping them concentrate.

In America, increasing numbers of children are being treated for ADD and many doctors are prescribing drugs such as Ritalin to calm them down and help them expand their attention span.

Earlier this year the annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board found that, in some American schools, up to 40% of children in a class were being given Ritalin.

Tiring therapy

Mr Pope said biofeedback techniques for ADD have been in use for a while but it can be difficult to get children to stick to the treatment regime.

"Brainwave biofeedback is effective with ADD children but it is a tedious and long term process," said Mr Pope, "It takes an average of 40 sessions of training to produce improvements.

But Mr Pope and Dr Palsson have made the experience much more fun by using off the shelf computer games instead of the specially prepared visual tasks they previously used and which children found boring.

The brainwaves of children playing the games are monitored and used to calibrate the performance of the joystick or gamepad being used to play the game.

When the children produce the right sort of brainwaves the joystick becomes more responsive reinforcing the behaviour.

Good game gear

"The brain waves we are monitoring do not have a great deal to do with their game playing," said Mr Pope, "The game is just a way to deliver the incentive."

Because children are happy to play computer games the treatment is proving popular and effective, said Mr Pope. The lengthening of attention span and calming effect of playing the game persists long after the treatment is finished, he said.

The biofeedback treatment can also help over-stressed adults cope with the pace of their lives. A game player might be fighting tense battles on a computer screen, but inwardly the therapy could help calm them.

"It could be a very stressful game and you could learn how to remain calm, cool and collected," said Mr Pope.

Now Nasa is considering using the therapy to train the brains of jet pilots so they can cope with the stress of combat and remain in control of their aircraft at all times.

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