Therapeutic Games for Improving Low-Level Attention

Outcome: The ability to orient and focus one’s attention appropriately is an important ingredient for effective learning. Dr. Jeanne Townsend and Dr. Leanne Chukoskie saw the need to take research findings about attention and to translate them into effective, affordable and readily available interventions. Through their new company, BrainLeap Technologies, they have created interventions in the form of fun games, aimed at improving attention. These games, using eye movements, gradually shape behavior using visual and auditory feedback provided in real time. They are designed to improve the speed, accuracy and control of eye movement, and in doing so they improve the speed, accuracy and control of attention. Townsend and Chukoskie are currently working to take these games from the lab and into homes and schools, to improve attentional skill and increase classroom readiness.

Impact/benefits: A major challenge in training attention and motor skills such as eye movement is the amount of time required and the necessity for frequent practice. It is difficult, if not impossible, to administer frequent and lengthy training in a laboratory or clinic. But the BrainLeap game system was designed for use at home or in school, which allows for greater flexibility and ease of use, and more hours of distributed training.

Background/Explanation: Research has shown that eye movement and attention are tightly linked and share much of the same brain circuitry. Attention is difficult to measure because it cannot be observed directly. It can only be measured by observing the way it affects our information processing, learning and memory. But eye movements can be observed and are easy to measure. Past studies have shown that saccadic eye movements – fast orienting eye movements – can be used as a sensitive, non-invasive measure of attention and motor planning. By understanding how eye movement and attention work together, Drs. Townsend and Chukoskie have developed therapeutic games that use eye movement to train attention. All of the games are played using an eye tracker that follows the user’s eyes. The games train different principles of eye movement and attention control such as fast and accurate shifts, inhibitory control, increasing field-of-view, fixation control, fast visual search, and looking ahead to improve and encourage movement planning.

BrainLeap games
The BrainLeap games include: Shroom Digger (left), Space Race (middle), Whack the Moles (right)

Shroom Digger: The player must fix gaze on the mushroom houses to explode them. Looking away causes the house to shrink. This game trains gaze fixation control, sustained attention focus, and fast visual search.
Space Race: Players must look ahead of the ship to move it through the green gates and pick up stars for bonus points. Crashing into a red gate causes a lost ship. This game trains fast attention, gaze shifts, and eye movement control.

Whack the Moles: Cartoon moles emerge from their holes or descend with parachutes from the sky. Some are to be ‘whacked’ by fixed gaze and others are to be avoided. This game trains rapid, accurate shifts and inhibitory control of attention and gaze.

Chukoskie, L., Westerfield, M., Townsend, J. (2017) “A Novel Approach to Training Attention and Gaze in ASD: A Feasibility and Efficacy Pilot Study”. Developmental Neurobiology. doi: 10.1002/dneu.22563