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This Is Serious Fun
Can videogames equipped with neurofeedback help kids deal with their learning disabilities?
By N'Gai Croal
Sept. 27 issue - A stitch in time saves nine. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. And
videogames will rot your brain. Conventional wisdom? Maybe, but psychologist Dominic Greco is
determined to prove that at least one of those sayings is not true. Greco, the 52-year-old founder
of CyberLearning Technology, uses neurofeedback-enhanced versions of off-the-shelf videogames
like Ratchet & Clank to help treat children and adolescents with attention-deficit disorder or
cognitive-processing difficulties. If that sounds like futuristic, space-age technology, you're not far
off; CyberLearning Technology has built its system, dubbed S.M.A.R.T. Brain Games, around a
neurofeedback patent it obtained exclusively from NASA.
Here's how S.M.A.R.T. Brain Games work. A normal human brain, when awake and focused on an
activity, produces a lot of fast brain waves. But people with cognitive-processing or learning
disabilities produce large amounts of slower brain wavesólike the ones generated when we're
sleeping or daydreaming. That makes staying focused extremely difficult.
S.M.A.R.T. Brain Games use a specially designed headgear, with built-in sensors, to monitor the
player's brain waves. The child or adolescent operates a regular videogame console like the
PlayStation 2, but with a controller that has been modified by CyberLearning Technology. If the
player remains focused while speeding through the streets of Tokyo in a racing game like Gran
Turismo 3: A-Spec, he or she will be able to drive unimpeded. But the moment the youngster's
attention wanders, the system steadily reduces the top speed available to the player, causes the
controller to rumble and produces atonal sounds, letting the child know that he or she must
refocus. Once the kid does, the sounds disappear, the rumble goes away and the child can once
again achieve top speed. "We're exercising the brain to a higher level of processing and attention,"
says Greco, who's been using neurofeedback to work with children since 1990. Though
neurofeedback hasn't been studied as extensively as drug therapy, it has fewer side effects, and
many families swear by it. Dr. Ali Hashemi of the California-based Attention and Achievement
Center cautions that while the principles of neurofeedback are well established, as yet there are no
peer-reviewed studies of Greco's methods (though one is expected by the year-end).
Adults can benefit from neurofeedback as well. The Wild Divine Project has released a CD-ROM for
Mac and PC called Journey to the Wild Divine, which uses sensors attached to the fingers to
monitor skin conductance and heart-rate variability via the computer's USB port. The story-based
game teaches things ranging from yogic breathing to meditation through lush visuals that respond
to your actions, like lighting a virtual fire by exhaling calmly and smoothly. "I was always
frustrated by how boring biofeedback was," says Corwin Bell, Wild Divine's 40-year-old designer.
"Raise a bar, make a face smile. It wasn't very entertaining. The challenge for me and my team
was to bring in a visual metaphor." Mission accomplished.
© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.
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