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Attention deficit disorder? Try video games

When her son was diagnosed with ADD last year, one mother considered a once unthinkable solution for the problem.

When her 11-year-old son was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder last year, Janet Herlihey warmed up to an unthinkable solution for his problem: video games.

What sold her on games instead of medication was NASA technology. The technology would help "tune" her child's brain to focus and relax while he played fairly innocuous, off-the-shelf games like "Ratchet and Clank" on Sony's PlayStation 2.

The system, called Smart BrainGames, essentially monitors her son's brain waves through the use of sensors in a helmet while he plays a game. A box that can be hooked up to PS2 then initiates changes in the game. The more the player concentrates, for example, the faster a car will go in a racing game.

The BrainGames technology was originally created at NASA to improve pilots' attention while flying. San Diego-based CyberLearning Technologies obtained an exclusive license for the technology in 2002, and followed up a year later by creating the patented overall learning system.

BrainGames includes a helmet with three sensors, which can be easily attached to the head to measure brain waves. The data feeds a so-called smart box that hangs around the player's neck and is hooked up to the PS2. The smart box is a modified game controller that collects a real-time signal from the brain, or a snapshot of brain activity every 30 seconds. The data is then processed with a program that affects the game.

One racing game, called "Burnout," is modulated for speed. If the child is operating at peak performance and attention, the car will reach 100 mph. But if the child is tired or less attentive, the speed might fall to 70 mph, even when the game controls are pressed with the same exertion. The only way the child can get the car to go faster is to focus.

The system also measures stress. If a child's stress level goes too high, the controller vibrates or disconnects the steering function. The warning teaches concentration without making the child overly stressed.

"They feel that they are in the seat in order to affect the game, versus just pushing a button. They're now using their physiology. It's fully immersive and places the individual in the game," said Domenic Greco, CEO of Cyberlearning Technologies.

In April, CyberLearning began selling its system, which costs $550 directly from its Web site. The company claims that between 1,200 and 1,300 families have used it. In 2004, the company partnered with pediatricians and psychologists to use the software with children diagnosed with ADD.

The CyberLearning system offers a notable counterpoint to the common perception of video games as detrimental to children. The violent imagery of many highly publicized video games is routinely claimed to foster aggressive behavior. In fact, a number of states have enacted laws banning violent games or are contemplating doing so.

But Cyberlearning's BrainGames are designed to work with racing or jumping games, in which children affect the speed of an object or the height of a character's jump by used focused attention. The system is not associated with the types of games denounced as violent, such as the popular shooter game, "Resident Evil."

Video games are a far cry from where this technology got its start. NASA conducted research in the late 1990s to measure the attention and patience of pilots. Researchers found that pilots were less engaged in planes that had more automation in the cockpit, and consequently, were not as quick to react in an emergency. So scientists created a "closed loop" design to create an ideal mix of technology and human functions to maintain the pilot's focus.

Though the workings of the NASA technology are still largely a mystery to Herlihey, she said that after almost a year, her son is calmer, more focused and a better reader.

"His memory improved. His ability to stick with a task improved. Something that used to take him 45 minutes to do because his attention would wander now takes him 15 minutes," said Herlihey. And, she said that one of her son's siblings who is prone to hyperactivity has also shown improvement after playing the game.

Herlihey's family is living on the cutting edge of educational or learning games. The San Diego-based Virtual Reality Medical Center, for example, has been using games and virtual environments as a tool to treat phobias, such as the fear of flying. Others have found a niche for relaxation and meditation games, such as The Journey to Wild Divine, which uses biofeedback techniques to measure brain waves and monitor muscle tension during the game.

"There's an increasing interest in it, but I wouldn't say the game industry is dropping what they're doing. It's still largely a subgenre," said Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech who runs a game-focused site called Watercooler Games.

But Bogost doesn't count on this market exploding. "The commercial game industry is still reeling from the educational market of the '70s and '80s. Not a lot of it did well from sales or learning value," he said.