Akili Interactive Labs has partnered with universities and healthcare companies to test Project: EVO’s ability to help with autism, Alzheimer’s disease, A.D.H.D. and depression.

Diagnosing and measuring cognitive issues can be tedious for patients who have to sit through monotonous tests and invasive processes. Akili Interactive Labs, a Boston-based start-up, is trying to harness the excitement and engagement of video games to change that.

Following our recent blog post about Project: EVO, Not Impossible Now spoke with Eddie Martucci, the COO and co-founder of Akili, to learn more about the groundbreaking video game.

Project: EVO is designed to assess, monitor and improve several cognitive abilities. Users control an accelerometer, often on a mobile device like an iPad, to drive a figure down a winding path. The accelerometer tracks performance as the user races through water rapids and responds to numerous visual cues, like different-colored fish. 

The accelerometer collects data about a user’s motor functions. Meanwhile, the visual cues often prompt an action on the touchscreen, which measures how quickly the user reacts. The game also adapts to a user’s abilities as the characters progress through different levels and long-term journeys.

At its core, Project: EVO is an extremely fast-paced driving game. The team behind Project: EVO’s game design is from LucasArts, the creators of the Star Wars games, and having the look and feel of a commercial-grade video game feel was key for Akili. 

Photo courtesy of Akili Interactive Labs

Photo courtesy of Akili Interactive Labs

“Our vision when we built this out is that we’re not going to build it as a cognitive test. We’re not going to build it as educational software and then layer colors on. We’re going to build it from the ground up as a video game.” Martucci said.

The idea for Akili was inspired by Dr. Daphne Bavelier’s research, which found that action video games can have positive cognitive impacts on perception, decision-making and attention. Project: EVO, Akili’s first project, came out of Dr. Adam Gazzaley’s work with measuring and improving the brain through games. Gazzaley created NeuroRacer, a racing game that would morph into Project: EVO.

While it’s not the only brain game out there, Project: EVO is trying to become the first with F.D.A. approval.

Akili has partnered with universities and healthcare companies to test Project: EVO’s ability to help with autism, Alzheimer’s disease, A.D.H.D. and depression. Its largest clinical studies have been conducted with Duke University and Pfizer.

Project: EVO focuses on the area of the brain that controls the executive function, which includes the ability to plan, prioritize and execute tasks. Martucci explained that human brains are able to process different streams of information in our environments and in our memories and filter out what is task-relevant. You may be thinking about an errand you have to do later, while eating dinner and holding a conversation with a friend. This ability to process multiple streams of information, known as “interference processing,” is connected to several cognitive functions, including short-term memory, motor tasks and long-term planning, and can be impacted by several diseases.

Photo courtesy of Akili Interactive Labs

Photo courtesy of Akili Interactive Labs

“We hope that by improving this millisecond-based interference filtering of information, the improvements we see in patients are cognitive. Their ability to respond to certain cues will hopefully be broader — finish homework faster, focus at work better, even have their mood boosted because they’re able to perform their daily lives more efficiently,” Martucci said. “It’s really about efficient performing of goals across a number of neurological conditions.”

Akili has not published its findings yet but plans to soon. The startup will continue vigorously testing Project: EVO so that doctors can believe in it, recommend it to patients and use its data “without a shadow of doubt,” according to Martucci.

Project: EVO’s success would not only help millions of individuals suffering from neurological diseases but also legitimize the benefits of video games.

As Akili moves forward in its innovative work, Martucci offered some advice for young entrepreneurs: “Talk to many different people from many different backgrounds. Only then can you get outside the bubble of your own head and think about the needs of the world and the ways that your idea can be totally changed but in a really good way.”

Top photo courtesy of Akili Interactive Labs