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On the surface, it appears to be a premise straight out of a science fiction film – using the mind to control a virtual reality without the use of a joystick or mouse. But in a growing number of classrooms, this strange concept is taking hold in an extraordinarily promising field – the use of technology to address the myriad learning difficulties associated with ADHD. Until now, most medical research regarding the controversial neurological disorder has focused mainly on the cause – with very little attention paid to positively altering the effects. Today, through the dedication of an impassioned teacher, children and adults with ADHD have the assistance of a new tool to cope with the symptoms of the disorder – a tool that is teaching them to control their mind, one game at a time.

Developed by educator Peter Freer in 1996, the Play Attention system has already been tested in hundreds of US school systems, private homes, learning centers and hospitals. Inspired by the technology used by NASA to train their astronauts for the rigors of space, Freer developed Play Attention to specifically address the challenges inherent with ADHD – namely inability to focus, lack of impulse control, and hyperactivity – and promises improved behavior results in as little as 30 days. But how does it work?

Play Attention

The program itself is very simple. There are two components – the software ‘gaming’ program, and a lightweight helmet (similar to a bicycle helmet) that is worn during play. The helmet is fitted with sensors that track brain activity while the user is engaged, thus affecting the action in the game. If the user loses focus, the gaming activity stops. By measuring the EEG waves corresponding to attention, the program can track when a user is focusing on the task at hand, and when they’ve broken their concentration. The goal is to train the user to control their focus – a shared difficulty among those on the learning disorder spectrum. And following successful trials, the program appears to have a positive effect on a wider range of other neurological disorders and may eventually be used to assist those with severe mental and physical disabilities who are unable to use a traditional computer.

Freer credits the program’s success to neuroplasticity, the lifelong ability of the brain to constantly learn and adapt. Unlike neurofeedback programs, which aim to ‘normalize’ the ‘abnormal’ waves of the ADHD mind, Play Attention’s program is designed to teach the essential skills necessary to improving behavior for long-term results. It provides an arena in which the user can learn how to pay attention – which Freer believes has a positive, lasting impact on the daily, real-life behaviors of the user.

In addition to producing quantifiable results in those with ADHD – children and adults alike – the program also shows potential in other fields. Modified versions have been used by elite athletes to enhance their abilities under pressure, and others still have utilized it for mild memory and concentration problems. It all may sound like science fiction – but Play Attention’s real-world results are garnering attention far beyond the screen.