Calming children’s minds with Zip...and the misty mountain game

Children can fill up Zip’s “focusmeter” and attract more gems by keeping him calm

Neuroscientist Áine Behan has devised a way of bringing neurofeedback training “to the masses” by developing a game that can be used in conjunction with a headset by children at home.

Coming from a research background, she believes there are science-based solutions that don't involve medication, which can be used to improve symptoms of certain mental health conditions. So two years ago she did what everybody told her was "crazy" – she gave up her permanent job as a research lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland to set up her own company, Cortechs. Now she works to develop digital tools that could help lead to better brain functioning in areas such as attention, concentration and calmness.

Its first commercial product, “Zip and the misty mountain game”, is aimed at children aged six to 12 and combines game play with elements of neurofeedback. The game, developed here, is used in conjunction with headsets that children wear while playing it. The Android app was released last year and an iPad version is due to be launched shortly.

Before the game starts, Zip talks the children through what it is to be focused and what it is to be relaxed. While the primary aim is to increase concentration, there are also built-in incentives for the children to remain as calm as possible while playing it.

The brainwave-sensing headset is connected by Bluetooth to the games app, into which thresholds have been set for different levels. By using the brain to concentrate, the child can fill up Zip’s “focusmeter” enabling him to soar, and by keeping the mind calm, will magnetise him to attract more gems.

As children see the effect of their focus registering on the screen, they are incentivised to continue and try harder.

“We reward you the more you are focused but we are actually changing the way that your brainwaves respond, and therefore your behaviour as well,” says Behan.

Back at base, Cortechs can remotely monitor all the child’s sessions – getting a read-out every time. That data can then be examined to see how the child’s focus has increased through repeated playing.

“It is fantastic to see,” Behan says. Now Cortechs is currently in the middle of a validation study to see if children are changing their behaviour as a result.

While a neurofeedback clinic, Behan acknowledges, can measure brainwaves in real time and do a lot more elaborate things, she is passionate about finding applications of the science that are more accessible, in terms of both location and finance. (This game and headset cost €150.)

She keeps coming back to the word “tool” – “giving kids something they can use to improve their behaviour”. And, personally, she doesn’t want children taking pills if they don’t have to.

Through her work in mental health and having seen loved ones with depression “just having pills thrown at them”, her hope is that brainwave technology could be used to treat a lot of other disorders in the future. “From a professional perspective,” she adds, “there is a lot of research out there that isn’t making it to the people who need to use it most.”

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