Struggling to Focus? Try Video Games

And that wasn’t all. The people in the study also improved their thinking skills in areas that weren’t targeted: sustained attention and working memory. It was the first evidence of the potential for therapeutic video games to target and enhance those abilities. But it wouldn’t be the last.

Which brings us back to kids with ADHD.

Is There a Therapeutic Video Game in Your Future?

Working memory – the ability to retain information long enough to use it – is a key to success in school, work, and everyday life. Like the ability to focus attention, it’s a higher-level executive function, which means the two processes share some of the same neural networks in the same parts of the brain. Not coincidentally, working memory deficits are one of the hallmarks of ADHD.

Medications can certainly help.

But so does playing video games, according to a recently published study. Nine- and 10-year-olds who played commercial video games for several hours a day had better working memory and response inhibition – stopping themselves before allowing a distraction to pull them off a task – than kids who never played.

Fortunately, kids don’t need to play multiple hours a day to achieve benefits.

“We saw linear effects in pretty much everything we looked at,” says Bader Chaarani, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and the study’s lead author.

“Light gamers who played on average 1 hour per day showed the same improvements in cognition, response inhibition, and working memory, compared to those who never played video games,” he says. “These effects were intermediate between non-video gamers and the heavy video gamers.”

This helps explain why video games are getting so much attention in neurological, medical, and psychological research.

In addition to EndeavorRx, Gazzaley and his team have developed several others for different populations and preferences.

MediTrain, for example, uses digital technology to help young adults master meditation, the timeless practice of stillness and presence.

Rhythmicity, a musical game designed to help seniors improve short-term memory, also helps them remember faces. (Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart helped develop the game.)

Body-Brain Trainer, another game created for seniors, combines cognitive training with exercise, using the closed-loop algorithm to adjust both interventions to the user’s ability. Those who used the game for 8 weeks improved in two fitness measures (blood pressure and balance) as well as in their ability to sustain attention.

Gazzaley plans to explain in a future study how games with such different mechanics and tempos — from an obstacle-dodging run to drumming to slow-paced meditation — lead to similar improvements in attention.

Again, that’s similar to exercise, where almost any kind of training will lead to improvements in heart health, which in turn reduces the risk of premature death from any cause.

Because there are so many ways to get to the same destination, you can find effective exercise programs to fit just about any combination of abilities and preferences. You can also advance through a fitness program at your own pace.

That may be how we use therapeutic video games as the category develops.

“Now that we have so many types of games and so many populations, we’re getting a richer understanding of how you can push and pull these systems to get these outcomes,” Gazzaley says. “That’s what makes me so excited about the future.”

Games as medicine? Seems worth paying attention to.


Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, professor of neuroscience, University of California, San Francisco.

Bader Chaarani, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry, University of Vermont.


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