UVA Studies Brain Training Games

Feb 4, 2014

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Seven to nine percent of children in the state of Virginia have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – a condition that makes it hard to concentrate. 

Several for-profit companies have developed computer programs which claim to help kids focus, but a review by the University of Virginia’s school of education suggests none of them work.

As an assistant professor at the Curry School of Education, Michael Kofler works with children who have ADHD.   Experts no longer tell these kids to sit still in class. “When we move around  it helps us focus, it helps us pay attention.  And so if we’re telling kids with ADHD to sit still, not only are we taking away those physiological benefits, but we’re also having them focus part of their brain power on where their feet are or where their butt is in the chair, rather than what they’re reading or what the teacher is saying to them.”

But that doesn’t mean they can disrupt the class, and Kofler says there are proven ways to help them concentrate:  prescription medication or behavior modification, in which they win praise or lose privileges depending on their conduct.  

“We’d either take away things that the child wants – like activities that they could be earning, or we have things like time out.”

Several for-profit companies have offered what they bill as a third choice – brain training games played online.

“If kids with ADHD have particular parts of the brain that are underdeveloped, maybe through training we can help them develop those – similar to the way we would go to the gym to build muscles. “

We left messages for the company that makes this program – to ask about their data supporting claims of success – but we did not get a call back.  Kofler says programs like this can be helpful to older adults, but after reviewing 25 cognitive training studies, his team concluded they did not help children with ADHD and did not translate into academic improvement.  

“A lot of these programs are claiming to train working memory, which is your ability not only to hold things in your brain temporarily but then do something with them, process them, move them around, think about them in different ways.  What they’re targeting more is the short term memory – how many things you can hold in your head at one time.”

Researchers at the Curry School are now developing their own program to boost working memory and help kids with ADHD.  They’ll begin testing it this summer.