For the first time, US doctors can prescribe a video game. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just approved EndeavorRX as an effective treatment for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
Children aged 8-12 years old can now be prescribed gaming sessions on EndeavorRX, in which players pilot a small aircraft through a variety of alien environments – including icy rivers, fiery volcanoes, jungle treehouses and underwater paths.
The game has been specifically constructed to improve attention in youngsters with ADHD, potentially in combination with other treatments, depending on each person – it's certainly much more fun than having to remember to take tablets every day.
"The EndeavorRx device offers a non-drug option for improving symptoms associated with ADHD in children and is an important example of the growing field of digital therapy and digital therapeutics," says Jeffrey Shuren, the director of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health.
"The FDA is committed to providing regulatory pathways that enable patients timely access to safe and effective innovative digital therapeutics."
In the US alone, ADHD is thought to affect around 4 million children aged between 6 and 11. Those with the condition show very high levels of activity, and have difficulty staying focussed, paying attention, and controlling behaviour.
The FDA notes that the game should be used as part of a bigger therapeutic program that might also include help from healthcare professionals, medication, and various educational programs, to tackle the various symptoms of ADHD.
Kids who have the condition can have a hard time sitting still and following instructions – which happens a lot in day-to-day school life – and it's in these situations where being able to stay in one place and focus on a video game might be most beneficial.
"For children living with ADHD, improving their ability to focus and resist distraction is critical to their daily functioning and performance in school," says child neurologist Elysa Marco, from Cortica Healthcare. "Unlike traditional ADHD medications, EndeavorRx is designed to specifically target inattention."
FDA approval was granted after five studies on the game, covering more than 600 children in total. The most significant, involving 348 participants, showed that 36 percent of kids showed improvement in at least one objective measure of attention after playing EndeavorRx for five days a week for four weeks.
That's noticeably higher than the 21 percent of kids in the control group who showed similar improvements – these young people were playing a word game that wasn't specifically designed to target ADHD. No serious side effects were recorded, though some children did report experiencing some level of frustration, headaches, dizziness, emotional reaction, and aggression.
There are caveats to bear in mind: the study was run by researchers and professionals with a financial stake in the video game, and was only tested for a month on kids not taking medication for ADHD. The study itself notes that the findings are not yet sufficient to suggest EndeavorRx should fully replace established ADHD treatments.
Nevertheless, it could well be a useful tool for doctors to use alongside the treatments that we already have – and FDA approval is usually not given lightly. Let's hope science can discover even more ways that specially crafted video games can be good for our health.
"With EndeavorRx, we're using technology to help treat a condition in an entirely new way as we directly target neurological function through medicine that feels like entertainment," says pharmacologist Eddie Martucci, the CEO of EndeavorX developer Akili.
One of the studies behind the game is published in The Lancet Digital Health.