The SMART system isn't the first game peripheral to try to make use of brainwaves. The Atari Mindlink attempted a more primitive version of brainwave reading by monitoring the muscles in your head. The result was that it trained players how to have a migraine rather than how to control a game. The peripheral was never released. It lives as a reminder of the importance of good, responsible research when the brain is involved.
The problem with scientific exploration in this area is the difficulty of a double blind study. You can give someone a sugar pill as a placebo when testing pharmaceuticals, but it is only recently that researchers have taken a similar approach for neurofeedback. In 2008, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) decided to start funding neurofeedback studies. With NIMH's backing, neurofeedback has established itself in the scientific realm.
A study conducted in 2005 showed that ADHD kids using the SMART system and videogames demonstrated "significantly less hyperactivity at home and school" and "demonstrated significant improvement on behavioral and neuropsychological tests of attention." Another study done by NASA concluded that a neurofeedback system could "be used largely without clinician involvement," meaning the system could work as well at home as in a professional setting.
Not all researchers are convinced. Dr. Russell Barkley, an expert in ADHD, has been critical of neurofeedback. He pointed me to a study he co-wrote in 2005 that suggested previous studies involving ADHD and neurofeedback suffered from methodological flaws. Still, the study also states that there are "some promising results that require further study." It also doesn't discount the effects of videogames: They can provide the motivation to complete a task. Anyone who has lost a night playing Civilization knows this.
The next big thing for SmartBrain Technologies is support for the new generation of consoles. There is no doubt that Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of SMART are on their way. They also plan on continuing to improve the DVD system and expand it to include TV programs in an effort to continue expanding their market.
SmartBrain Technologies wants to target more than just the consumer sector. Patients can go to clinics that have the system to treat specific conditions. They can help patients cope with bi-polar disorder and rehabilitation following a brain injury. SMART systems are also being deployed in schools to help kids with ADHD in a group setting.
Targeting a wide range of people can have a significant impact. ADHD tends to run in families - my mother has it, and I'm sure one of my future kids will as well. There are a lot of people, my mom included, who don't play videogames, and offering the SMART system in different formats means that she could still benefit from the technology. With much of the population either unresponsive to medication or unable to acquire it, neurofeedback may be the best therapy they can get.
The scientific evidence says that the SMART system can use videogames to treat ADHD. It offers an alternative to medication that is affordable enough to be used at home. In a clinical setting, it can help remedy other learning disabilities. It offers hope to those of us living with ADHD that we can use the videogames we love to be a little more normal.
Joel Gonzales is secretly a power ranger and runs Internet Superstars - a studio that makes games for charity.