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Boston-based Akili Interactive Labs developing therapeutic video games to enhance your cognitive functions

Posted by Scott Kirsner  March 7, 2012 08:15 AM

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It's a pretty counter-intuitive concept, but what if playing video games could actually help improve conditions like depression or ADHD? A low-profile Boston start-up called Akili Interactive Labs is developing its own games to try to prove that hypothesis, and the company will conduct its first "before-and-after" brain imaging studies on players this spring.

Akili is being incubated at PureTech Ventures, a Back Bay firm that seeds new life sciences start-ups, and its acting chief executive is PureTech founder Daphne Zohar. But Akili is pretty different from the typical PureTech project: the start-up has brought on board veterans of Lucas Digital Arts and Electronic Arts who have worked on games like "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed" and "Medal of Honor."

"This is a whole new way of delivering therapeutic benefit in the field of cognition," says Zohar. "What if a child with ADHD symptoms, instead of taking Ritalin, could play a game?" She says the company will likely focus on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder first, with plans to study how games might affect other conditions, including stress, depression, and anxiety.

Akili has been working first on games for iPhones and iPads, and testing them so far with about 50 healthy individuals, "to hone both the science and usability," Zohar says. The company is in the process of "setting up collaborations to run pilot tests in multiple patient indications with leading academic investigators," she adds.

The company's roots are in academic research from Adam Gazzaley's cognitive neuroscience lab at UCSF, as well as a brainstorming session among neuroscientists and game designers that PureTech held in Boston last summer. (Gazzaley is speaking at this year's South by Southwest Festival, and was featured in a recent PBS special on "The Distracted Mind.") One of Akili's advisors is Philip Rosedale, creator of the virtual world Second Life.

In hiring game designers for Akili, Eddie Martucci, the company's co-founder and director of R&D, says he finds that "they're interested in doing something that can change health and have a big impact."

So far, Akili has four full-time employees, and seed funding from PureTech. The screenshot below is from a prototype game that Akili is developing, code-named "Project: Evolution."

Akili_screenshot_022912.jpg

(The Wall Street Journal ran this story yesterday on "When Games Are Good for You.")

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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