Children with ADHD find it difficult to concentrate. They can be hyperactive, suffer from poor memory, and struggle to plan and organise their time.
Medicines do not work for all and therefore many parents are ready to try all possible forms of treatment to ease their children’s symptoms, such as computer games targeted at easing ADHD symptoms.
However their effectiveness is doubtful for most ADHD symptoms, concludes a new Ph.D. project.
“Many of these programs don’t live up to what they promise, and it’s important that parents know this, because it’s a huge market,” says Aida Bikic, a visiting researcher at the University of Southern Denmark, who has recently completed a Ph.D. on the effect of computer games on children suffering from ADHD.
Her results indicate that games can have a beneficial effect in children with a specific type of ADHD.
“It isn’t something that helps all children with ADHD. It helps specific children, but not the whole group,” says Bikic.
New treatments are necessary
When Bikic started to study how the customised games worked, she had positive expectations, because the traditional treatment options for children and adults with ADHD are limited.
“There are children that receive medicine and they can be helped, but the research shows that the effect declines in others, and there’s about 20 to 30 per cent who do not respond at all to medication. It’s important that we also find a supplementary treatment for these children,” says Bikic.
“Since we know that brains of children with ADHD are different to their peers, the hypothesis is that cognitiv training can form new connections in the brain. So it’s important to study whether this is an option for treatment, because we don’t have many treatment options to choose from,” she says.
Concentration does not improve
Bikic and her colleagues asked 70 children with ADHD to play the computer game ACTIVATETM—a game designed to improve working memory, self-control, attention, and other cognitive functions through brain training exercises.
The game failed to live up to its promises, says Bikic.
After playing the game for 40 minutes a day, six days a week for eight weeks, the children’s progress was evaluated based on cognitive tests and reports from teachers and parents to see if they had noticed a change in relation to the children’s ADHD symptoms.
The children’s concentration, attention span, and memory did not improve. But their ability to plan did.
“We discovered that it didn’t improve their concentration or other ADHD symptoms, but children did become better at planning. And it was maintained for three to six months after the training,” says Bikic.
Could help certain children
When the scientists looked into their results they saw that children with ADHD who weren’t hyperactive got more out of the games than hyperactive children.
These children improved their working memory, impulse inhibition, and—according to their parents—improved their problem-solving skills in their everyday lives.
Conversely, hyperactive children only improved their planning skills.
The problem with these computer games is that they try to treat a wide range of ADHD symptoms, says Bikic, even though scientists know that ADHD children can have many different symptoms and cognitive difficulties.
“Parents should be careful not to use too much money on these types of games, as it can be expensive,” says Bikic.
Need to study individual patient groups
Senior scientist and assistant lecturer Ole Jakob Storebø also studies ADHD at the Psychiatiric Research Unit at Region Zealand, Denmark.
He describes Bikic’s work as quality work, but not extensive enough to be sure of the conclusions.
The group of participants in the study is also too broad to really say who could benefit from the games, says Storebø.
“They are investigating the average patient. If you could have a more selective population, so that you could see who had specific problems, then you might obtain more precise results,” he says.
“We experience this also in medical treatments: we know that there’s an effect among some patients, but it’s a more uncertain when you look at the average,” he says.
Colleague: Try it on your kids
Storebø agrees with Bikic that the games are only effective if you know what kind of ADHD you child has and what the game is specifically designed to do. But he still thinks that parents should try the games out on their children and see if it makes a difference for them.
“We recommend that we use computer games, but the evidence is not especially strong,” says Storebø.
“Some can have success with medicine, others with behavioural training, and others have success with computer games in combination with other treatments, and so on. It depends on the individual patient,” he says.
Read more in the Danish version of this article on Videnskab.dk