Due to its strengths in diverse fields, Finland is the global vanguard of neurogaming.
IT IS like wine and cheese. Or salt and pepper. Or a stint in a blazing hot sauna followed by a dip into a cold lake. Partnerships between two supposedly incongruous things often yield the most unexpected benefits. This is happening today in Finland as the gaming and mental health care industries join forces. The sum of this merger is neurogaming, and it is revolutionising both fields.
Neurogaming doesn’t involve the old inputs of pressing buttons, manipulating joysticks or swiping touch screens. It instead uses other methods, such as pupil dilation or heart rate. But one of the most interesting of the new inputs is brain waves. The player has her brain activity recorded along the scalp via an electroencephalogram, or EEG. By controlling her thinking, she plays the game.
The interface is a new and fun way to play, but neurogaming is much more than entertainment. It can also be used to treat neurological processes.
“The brain’s operations are not static,” explains investor and entrepreneur Ville Tapio. “The brain can renew or improve how it operates. It adapts to different patterns.”
Neuroplasticity is how neural pathways and synapses change. Brain functions are not confined to fixed locations, and this allows neurogaming to be a unique form of therapy for some brain disorders.
Tapio’s company, Mental Capital Care, is involved in a research program which is funded by Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation. In true Finnish fashion, the program contains a variety of partners from the public and private sectors, including researchers from the University of Helsinki. One study has taken fifty adult sufferers of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and put them through forty sessions of neurogaming.
Previous studies have determined that sufferers of ADHD often have abnormal brain activity. By using neurogaming, Finnish researchers are seeing how a computer program encourages people to think in ways that changes the operation of certain areas of the brain.
Computer enabled neuroplasticity treatment uses real-time digital technology to measure electrical activity in the brain. It presents this information in a form which enables the individual to perceive changes in the state of the brain and learn to modify abnormal patterns. The neuroplasticity therapy is instantaneous, so the user can immediately work towards more favourable brain states.
The games are simple yet challenging, and most importantly focus on modifying brain wave patterns. The game Simple Ball has users attempt to make a ball levitate on their screen. When their electrical impulses reach the correct frequency, the ball rises into the air and the player gets positive feedback.
Although the study is still in its final stages and the results have not been analysed, preliminary results are promising. One participant’s scores in the game improved 56 per cent during the course of the study.
Some of the feedback from the ADHD sufferers include: “I am able to concentrate better,” “I have learned to calm down,” and “The environment does not disturb my concentration as much as before.”
Benefits of neurogaming therapy
There are other treatments for ADHD, but Tapio stresses the comparative benefits of neuroplasticity treatment.
“This reduces the need for medication,” he says. “Some medicines that treat ADHD are narcotic, have side effects, and are extremely expensive. Moreover, the medicine will help, but when the patient stops taking it the symptoms can come back. With neurogaming therapy, the effects last longer. There are huge savings.”
Neurogaming may treat other disorders as well. Studies have explored the benefits of neuroplasticity treatments for brain injuries and chronic pain, among others. Another application could be controlling prosthetic limbs via brain activity.
Tapio believes the potential market for therapeutic neurogames is huge. In Europe, the aggregate cost of mental disorders tops 600 billion euros. In addition, he thinks Finland is the perfect incubator for new neurogaming companies. He already has one company working in Finland in the field, but now he is planning a new company to take the idea international and is looking for investors.
“The idea is to combine the knowledge and skills of the Finnish gaming sector and neurological research,” he says. “This is not competing with gaming companies. This could be a platform to use Finnish companies’ games.”
The strengths of the Finnish gaming industry are already well-known, thanks to the global success of companies such as Rovio and Supercell. Finnish research in neuroscience is also respected around the world, with a host of studies being published by University of Helsinki researchers in international journals.
“This will be connecting the two areas – bridging the gap – between gaming and health care,” concludes Tapio. “It will be an entirely new ecosystem.”
Did you know?
Some areas for therapeutic neurogaming research include:
- Alzheimer’s symptoms
- Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder
- Addictive behaviour
- Head injury symptoms
- Migraine headaches
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
Story by David J. Cord