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Children may be able to train their brain to pay attention

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A new game developed as part of a neurofeedback system may be able to help children diagnosed with ADHD.

A new study conducted at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts suggests children diagnosed with ADHD may be able to learn to focus better through a computer game. The game trains the brain to pay attention, according to a report that was published by NBC News on Feb, 17.

Getting feedback on what their brains are doing is "like turning on a light switch," said Dr. Naomi Steiner, developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center and lead author of the study. "Kids said 'Oh, this is what people mean when they tell me to pay attention.'"

The game was developed as part of a neurofeedback system for neurofeedback training NYC, which uses bicycle helmets wired to measure brain waves. The game was designed to give immediate feedback when the children were paying attention. Steiner and her colleagues randomly selected 104 Boston area elementary school children to test the system. The children were then placed in one of three groups: one group received 40 sessions of cognitive therapy, one received no treatment and the third received 40 half-hour sessions of neurofeedback.

In the neurofeedback group, the children wore standard bicycle helmets fitted with brain wave sensors. They then performed a variety of exercises on the computer such as focusing on a cartoon dolphin. Steiner explained, when they pay attention, beta waves increase while theta wave activity goes down. The dolphin would dive to the bottom of the sea when wave activity showed they were paying attention, in this particular exercise.

Six months after beginning the study, parents' reports on ADHD symptoms showed a lasting improvement in the neurofeedback group. After six months, children in the other two groups needed increases in medication while the children in the neurofeedback group did not, said Dr. Anthony Rostain, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert, unaffiliated with the study.

"It is good news," said Rostain. "But the results were modest. It's not a magic bullet. It's not going to replace medication." Sandra Loo, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA, agrees with the study’s weaknesses. It depended on parental observations, she said. Some of what the researchers are seeing may be a placebo effect.

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