BY LINDA CARROLL
Kids with ADHD may be able to learn better focus through a computer game that trains the brain to pay attention, a new study suggests.
The game was part of a neurofeedback system that used bicycle helmets wired to measure brain waves and gave immediate feedback when kids were paying attention, researchers reported Monday in Pediatrics.
Giving kids feedback on what their brains are doing is "like turning on a light switch," said Dr. Naomi Steiner, the study's lead author and a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. "Kids said 'Oh, this is what people mean when they tell me to pay attention.'"
To test the system, Steiner and her colleagues randomly assigned 104 Boston area elementary school children to one of three groups: no treatment, 40 half-hour sessions of neurofeedback or 40 sessions of cognitive therapy.
The kids getting neurofeedback wore standard bicycle helmets fitted with brain wave sensors while they performed a variety of exercises on the computer. In one exercise, kids were told to focus on a cartoon dolphin.
When people pay attention, theta wave activity goes down while beta waves increase, Steiner explained. If the kids' brains showed they were paying attention, the dolphin would dive to the bottom of the sea.
Parents' reports on ADHD symptoms six months later showed a lasting improvement in kids who had done neurofeedback. Perhaps more telling, kids in the other two groups needed an increase in medication after six months, while those in the neurofeedback group did not, said Dr. Anthony Rostain, an expert unaffiliated with the new study and a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
"It is good news," Rostain said. "But the results were modest. It's not a magic bullet. It's not going to replace medication."
One major weakness of the new study is that it depended on parental observations, said Sandra Loo, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA. It's possible that some of what the researchers are seeing is a placebo effect, Loo said.
Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBC News. She writes about health and science and her work has appeared in The Science Times, Newsday and The Los Angeles Times as well as national magazines including Smart Money and Health. She is coauthor of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic" and the forthcoming "Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing's Greatest Rivalry." She lives in rural New Jersey.