Health & Medicine

UC Davis to study whether virtual reality can help kids with ADHD navigate reality

See how UC Davis is using virtual reality to help kids with ADHD

A new study from the UC Davis Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute will investigate whether virtual reality can be used to effectively train children with ADHD to stay focused.
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A new study from the UC Davis Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute will investigate whether virtual reality can be used to effectively train children with ADHD to stay focused.

Virtual reality promises to immerse users in whole new worlds with just a smartphone and a headset. But forget playing video games and watching movies – UC Davis researchers say it could help kids with ADHD navigate the real world.

A study by the UC Davis Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute will test whether VR technology can help kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder reduce their sensitivity to distractions, according to a Tuesday press release.

“I was talking to a parent who told me when she was in law school studying for the bar she was studying in noisy cafes,” Dr. Julie Schweitzer, the MIND Institute researcher leading the study, said. “Eventually, she learned to block out everything around her. But now she wishes her son could learn to do the same.”

Schweitzer was looking for a way for kids to practice focusing in a way that is accessible and doesn’t require going to a clinic. VR became the perfect solution because it immerses kids in realistic situations.

How it works

Researchers will send kids home with a VR headset and phone programmed to put them through 25-minute daily training sessions in a virtual classroom. The idea is if kids with ADHD are exposed to distractions, they will become accustomed to them, and therefore less likely to lose focus when they meet distractions in a real classroom, Schweitzer said.

During the training, kids will feel as though they are sitting in a classroom chair looking at a whiteboard. They will be asked to perform attention-demanding tasks, such as math problems, which will appear on the white board.

But the classroom they are in will feature distractions like a loud bus driving by the window, kids talking and a teacher walking by with loud, clicking shoes. The kids in the classroom are always moving, even when they aren’t performing a specific distracting action, which makes the experience feel more like a real classroom.

Researchers will be able to tell how well kids focus on the task at hand by tracking their scores as well as by measuring data such as head movement, said Jared Stokes, a researcher working on the project. Kids will come into the lab at the beginning, middle and end of the period over which they complete the training where they’re distraction levels will be measured using eye-tracking technology.

This kind of treatment is known as “exposure therapy,” and it along with VR has been used to help people with anxiety to some success, according to Schweitzer, but this study is the first where kids will be able to complete the training at home as opposed to in a therapy session.

“One point of the project is for them to train,” Stokes said. “It’s not feasible for families to come into the lab three days a week.”

Other behavioral therapy options for ADHD teach kids skills but don’t try to simulate any kind of real-life situation, Schweitzer said. The VR simulations fully immerses kids in virtual classrooms and is able to more specifically target the problem of distractibility, according to Schweitzer.

“What we’re doing is very systematic,” Schweitzer said. “We have the ability to control the distractors, we can adjust the frequency and salience of the distractors.”

Why it matters

ADHD is one of the most common neurobiological disorders, and the condition can make school and social interactions more difficult for hyperactive kids. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 percent of American children between the ages of 4 and 17, or nearly 6 million children, have been diagnosed with ADHD.

The study presents a potential alternative to ADHD medications, which can sometimes have negative side effects, including sleep and appetite problems, the press release said. California is one of the states with the lowest percentages of ADHD-diagnosed children receiving medication, according to the CDC.

VR technology is becoming more accessible – Google sells a headset made of cardboard for only $15. The growing availability of VR would be a major potential benefit of the program in the face of rising drug costs in the U.S.

Accessibility is extremely important to the researchers, who envision a future where kids who need help with distractions can download an app to train their brains, according to Stokes, who emphasized that VR technology is only getting better. So down the road, the kind of training and technology used in the study may be adapted to become more personalized and thus more effective.

The study could potentially have ramifications beyond treatment of ADHD patients, too, Schweitzer said.

“We’re hoping our findings will help others learn how to ignore distractions when they interfere with our health, learning and productivity,” she said in the press release. Schweitzer cited distractions such as texting while driving as an example.

How to get involved

Researchers are recruiting 50 children between the ages of 8 and 12 to participate in the study. Participants must not be taking medication for ADHD and cannot have another condition, such as severe depression or autism.

Children who are highly distractible but have not received a diagnosis of ADHD are also welcome to participate, and children who were previously medicated but are no longer taking the medication are welcome as well. Those interested should call 916-703-0294 or visit the website at https://bit.ly/2PjucFx.

Children interested in participating will come to the lab to see if they qualify and are willing and able to put in the work to complete the training. The study requires participants complete at least three training sessions per week for a total of about 25 sessions. A second phase of the study will also involve parents and teachers to rate the children to determine how the training translates into real life.

The study is funded with a $1 million award from the National Institutes of Health. Should the pilot study prove successful, the NIH would fund a much larger follow-up study.

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