NEW YORK, N.Y. (March 2, 2015) - Autism Speaks' not-for-profit affiliate Delivering Scientific Innovation for Autism (DELSIA) has announced new funding for clinical testing of a cognitive video game designed to improve executive function skills in children and adolescents with autism.
Autism Speaks established DELSIA to support the translation of autism research into products and services that improve health and quality of life.
DELSIA's newest grant invests in the clinical development of Project: EVO, a medical video game 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 often are associated with everyday behavioral challenges, 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."
"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 are being actively explored for their applications in treating Alzheimer's, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and other brain conditions," he adds.
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 then showed that playing the game - which increases in difficulty with the user's ability level - is also therapeutic. 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's goal is to become the first to earn FDA-approval for a game-based medical device.
In the months leading up to the grant, DELSIA and Akili staff collaborated to design a rigorous clinical trial. Clear scientific evidence of a product's usefulness is crucial for validation and commercialization of the product in healthcare settings. The DELSIA-funded EVO study may serve as a gold standard 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 says. "We are actively seeking additional projects that target individuals with the most severe 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.
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders - autism spectrum disorders - caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, and repetitive behaviors. An estimated 1 in 68 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum.
About Autism Speaks
Autism Speaks is the world's leading autism science and advocacy organization. It is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. Autism Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Mr. Wright is the former vice chairman of General Electric and chief executive officer of NBC and NBC Universal. Since its inception, Autism Speaks has committed more than $525 million to its mission, the majority in science and medical research. Each year, Walk Now for Autism Speaks events are held in more than 100 cities across North America. On the global front, Autism Speaks has established partnerships in more than 60 countries on five continents to foster international research, services and awareness. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit AutismSpeaks.org.