mHealth Games Offer New Treatments for Kids With Autism, ADHD

An mHealth platform using video game technology is helping to improve attention spans in children with autism spectrum disorder and co-occurring attention/deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) say the digital health platform – called Project: EVO – not only improves care management for these children, but also helps their parents and other caregivers.

They study was detailed in a recent issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

“Our study showed that children engaged with the Project: EVO treatment for the recommended amount of time, and that parents and children reported high rates of satisfaction with the treatment,” Benjamin Yerys, PhD, a child psychologist at CHOP’s Center for Autism Research and the study’s lead author, said in a press release. “Based on the promising study results, we look forward to continuing to evaluate the potential for Project: EVO as a new treatment option for children with ASD and ADHD.”

In the study, which was financed by the digital therapeutic company Akili Interactive, roughly 20 children ages 9-13 with ASD and co-occurring ADHD were given either the Project: EVO video game or an educational activity involving pattern recognition.

According to Yerys and his colleagues, the children remained engaged with the mHealth platform for 95 percent of the treatment time. In addition, after using Project: EVO, the children showed an improved attention span and general ADHD symptom improvements, according to their parents.

“Both parents and children reported that the treatment had value for improving a child's ability to pay attention and served as a worthwhile approach for treatment,” the researchers reported. “Though the sample size of the study was small, the study showed that using Project: EVO was feasible and acceptable with potentially therapeutic effects.”

Developed by Akili Interactive, Project: EVO is based on research done more than a decade ago at the University of California at San Francisco by company co-founder Adam Gazzaley. Akili’s flagship game requires users to navigate an alien avatar through an obstacle course. The user’s actions and complex decision-making behaviors as the game changes course are recorded and analyzed.

The game is one of many to come out of the connected health spaceover the past decade aimed at improving patient engagement and treatment adherence, especially in children and young adults.

According to CHOP, roughly half of all children diagnosed with ASD also have ADHD symptoms, and about 30 percent have a secondary diagnosis of ADHD.

Researchers are looking into alternative treatments like mHealth and telehealth because traditional medication isn’t always effective in children dealing with both ASD and ADHD. In addition, those children are at a higher risk of impaired “cognitive function,” including the brain's ability to maintain attention and focus on goals while ignoring distractions.

Those conditions are more likely to be long-term, if not life-long. A digital therapeutic platform would therefore be more sustainable and less expensive than long-term treatment with drugs.

Originally published in mHealth Intelligence by Eric Wicklund on January 29, 2019