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PS2 for ADD?

Alexandra using the system.

(page 1 of 2)

Gray Matters, a new clinic in Westport, is introducing a new type of therapy here to treat children who have been diagnosed with ADD/HD (attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity disorder), and it’s the only one of its kind in the state. Gray Matters is collaborating with Living in Harmony (LIH), a Westport-based center for psychotherapy, family systems therapy, counseling and coaching, to help with broader psychological issues. Gary Pearson, founding member of LIH, says he was intrigued by Gray Matters and finds working with these children rewarding. “We work with the whole family. We start with an initial conversation to see what the family is dealing with, and then we help them readjust as the ADD child begins to adapt. It sets up a new set of circumstances.”

Anthony Silver, director of Gray Matters, adds, “Children with ADD or ADHD don’t just require additional support in the classroom, they also tend to dominate the family dynamic. They require a great deal of patience.”

Brain Games

Talk about an unlikely ADD therapy: video games. But now there may be reason to believe in this seeming contradiction — especially because it began with NASA scientists. They realized the neurofeedback technology they were using with flight simulators to optimize pilots’ attention could be applied to help children with ADD/HD. For these children, sitting still, focusing on one particular task, controlling impulsivity is next to impossible. With training, though, it is possible.

The system, called Smart BrainGames, uses technology developed, tested and patented by NASA; but it isn’t any off-the-shelf video gaming system by PlayStation 2 (PS2) — though the games are. The system includes a programmable minicomputer, called a “smart box,” that links the specially adapted PS2 game consoles to sensors that are dipped in water and fitted under a visor the child wears. “The kids are fine with it,” says Silver. “They think of it as a baseball cap.” This modified system allows the user to get constant feedback about his/her ability to focus — he’s having fun while learning how his brain works. “It’s really building stamina for concentration and it’s tiring,” says Silver.

Children control the speed of the car in “Grand Turismo,” a PS2 auto racing game, for example, using the game console as usual, but the car accelerates only when the user exhibits management over his/her brainwaves. When children have the correct amount of concentration — if they are calm and focused and their brain waves are in a set target area — their car will go fast. The specially adapted PS2 game console is wirelessly linked to an unobtrusive brainwave sensor, or EEG (electroencephalogram). Silver is then able to track the user’s real-time brainwave activity on a nearby computer monitor. (What are bouncing bars of green, yellow and red to onlooking parents are endlessly fascinating data to him.) “The brain contains a vast mass of nerves whose electrical activity is determined by its functional state,” he explains. “The brain constantly emits electrical current in a range from 1 to 40hz.” Specifically, the level of activity is divided as delta (1-2hz, deep sleep); theta (3-7hz, subconscious, distracted); alpha (8-12hz, inwardly focused, daydreaming, calm); SMR (13-15hz, alert but relaxed); and beta (16-42hz, analytical and focused). Silver sums it up, “Neurofeedback uses EEGs to help the user become aware of what electrical state his/ her brain is in, and learn to control it.

“We ‘down train’ the theta and alpha brain frequencies that are associated with daydreaming, anxiety and distractibility and ‘up train’ the beta waves that reflect focus and concentration. Too much alpha and theta and the game controller vibrates — while beta is directly correlated to speed with the car racing games,” he says. The vibration in the child’s hands is a signal for them to refocus. When he does concentrate, his beta brain waves will rise (associated with higher cognitive processing), and Silver will see levels on the monitor still in constant flux but, overall, more balanced. “The protocols are adjusted until they can find and maintain the high beta states that are equated with sustained attention and performance. Children rapidly learn the ability to calmly focus their minds.”

You might think that a kid playing a racing game would get “amped up” zooming around the track, but such a response would only slow down the car with Smart BrainGames. The user has to stay absorbed by the game and in control of the way he is thinking — it is more than just getting around the track quickly, it is staying aware of how to concentrate. This way, the brain is learning to self-regulate, and building the stamina to concentrate. “When you have ADD or ADHD, that type of focus is really difficult,” says Silver. “These are the kids who get up and walk around class or who are given an assignment and twenty minutes later, there is still nothing on the paper. They’re typically very smart kids, but their inability to concentrate and maintain focus at school limits their potential. This teaches them how.” 

The in-office sessions take place once a week; additional work is done at home daily for thirty minutes. Results are saved and forwarded electronically to Silver, who can monitor progress and adjust treatment as needed. Training, he says, typically takes about forty sessions and the results have been dramatic, both at school and at home, and as effective as stimulant medication but without the side effects, such as loss of appetite and stunted growth. “The results are also permanent — once the brain develops the ability for extended concentration, it doesn’t lose it,” he says. “And the training is fun.”