Autism Speaks’ not-for-profit affiliate DELSIA has announced new funding for the clinical testing of a therapeutic video game designed to improve executive function skills in children and adolescents affected by autism.
Autism Speaks established DELSIA (Delivering Scientific Innovation for Autism) to support the translation of autism research into products and services that improve health and quality of life for individuals with autism and their families.
Its newest grant invests in the clinical development of Project: EVO, by Boston-based Akili Interactive Labs. Earlier research on EVO’s prototype demonstrated that it engages brain pathways involved in executive brain functions including attention, focus and problem solving. Many people with autism have impaired executive function, and these impairments are associated with poor outcomes, other studies have shown.
“Akili appeared on our radar at our inaugural Autism Investment Conference,” says DELSIA President Dan Smith. “They stole the show in 2013 and in discussions that followed, it became clear that Akili was developing a high-quality, evidence-based product with the potential to improve real-world functioning for some people with autism.” Dr. Smith also serves as Autism Speaks’ senior director for discovery neuroscience.
“With DELSIA’s support, Akili’s product can advance down the path toward rigorous clinical validation and potentially even regulatory approval for this autism population,” adds Akili Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Eddie Martucci. “That type of validation is crucial for innovative types of medical products like our new medical gaming platform.”
Dr. Martucci will be giving the Day 1 keynote address at Autism Speaks’ third annual Autism Investment Conference, in Boston, March 10 - 12. Learn more here.
“Products such as EVO are at the forefront of a new wave of medical and healthcare technologies that complement established interventions and promise to improve outcomes,” Dr. Smith says. Therapeutic games, in particular, are being actively explored for their applications in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder and other brain conditions, he says.
Revving up brain skills
EVO’s cognitive technology is the brainchild of neurologist Adam Gazzaley, founding director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Gazzaley and colleagues originally developed a prototype video game (NeuroRacer) to assess seniors for signs of cognitive decline. His team went on to show that playing the game – which increases in difficulty with the user’s ability level – is also therapeutic. In their study, adults who played the game extensively over four weeks had lasting improvements in memory and thinking skills.
In 2011, Dr. Gazzaley and PureTech Ventures founded Akili Interactive Labs to adapt gaming programs to address other types of cognitive challenges. The company has the goal of being the first to earn FDA-approval for a game-based medical device.
DELSIA brings more than capital to investment
In the months leading up to the grant, DELSIA and Akili staff collaborated to design a rigorous clinical trial. community. Clear scientific evidence of a product’s usefulness is crucial before it can be marketed for use in healthcare. The DELSIA-funded EVO study may serve as a model for the development, regulatory approval and commercialization of other innovative healthcare technologies for autism.
“We believe that the future of autism treatment will likely involve a variety of therapeutic modalities,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Robert Ring. Dr. Ring also serves as chairman of the DELSIA board of managers. “To meet each patient’s needs, clinicians will likely draw on combinations of traditional behavioral interventions, pharmacotherapies and therapeutic technologies such as games.”
The DELSIA team recognizes that no intervention or service is right for all people with autism, Dr. Smith adds. “We are actively seeking additional projects that target individuals with the most debilitating and severe signs and symptoms of autism, including GI and immune system problems.”
In the coming months, Akili will begin enrolling more than 125 participants, ages 8 to 16, with a formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and attention deficits. Study sites will be determined in early 2015. For more information, contact Akili at firstname.lastname@example.org.