Two years ago, Shane Dunne's son would scream and bolt into the street if he heard a dog bark in the distance.
Fourteen-year-old Sam has Asperger's syndrome, but today his symptoms, including anxiety about dogs and hypersensitivity to his environment, are under control, thanks in part to a game developed by his computer scientist father.
Think of the brain as a muscle or a car engine, Dr. Dunne says. Neurofeedback training systems are specialized to help a child – or an adult – regulate the electrical activity of their brain, and Dr. Dunne developed a version of it that is fun for kids.
He will demonstrate the game on Saturday at a workshop in Ottawa that will bring together top Canadian researchers who specialize in game technology, social networking and digital media with those who study brain disorders in children.
See the results
At the When Virtual Meets Reality workshop, they will brainstorm about how to harness new technology to capitalize on the plasticity of the developing brain, and its ability to change in response to training.
The goal is to find new ways to diagnose and treat autism, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions in children, by bringing people like Dr. Dunne together with medical researchers to develop and assess potential treatments.
The scientists are from two federally funded research networks, GRAND, the Graphics, Animation and New Media network, and NeuroDevNet, a team set up last year to collaborate on research into the developing brain.
"You can imagine how virtual reality could help shape sensory and cognitive systems, rewire the brain, help tweak one system and down regulate another," says Dan Goldowitz, scientific director of NeuroDevNet.
Dr. Dunne is not part of either network; he is a consultant in Kingston. But his work so impressed Queen's University's James Reynolds, who specializes in fetal alcohol syndrome, that he invited him to the workshop. The two live in the same neighbourhood.
Neurofeedback shows promise but is still unproven as a treatment, Dr. Reynolds says.
The idea is that the pattern of the electrical activity in the brains of children with Asperger's, which is on the autism spectrum, or other disorders, is different from that of children with normal brain development.
But what if those children could learn to regulate that activity, to get into a more normal pattern? Would that reduce their symptoms?
That's the theory behind neurofeedback, and two years after Dr. Dunne and his wife searched the scientific literature for ways to help their son, they decided to give it a try.
They took Sam to a Mississauga clinic run by psychologist Lynda Thompson that offers neurofeedback training.
Clinicians attached electrodes to Sam's head that fed into simple computer animation, such as a dart travelling toward a target.
Through trial and error, Sam's brain became able to regulate its electrical activity. As his brain waves approached the normal pattern, the dart would move. As they drifted away from normal, the dart stopped. "It's a subconscious process," Dr. Dunne said. "Deliberate thinking or concentration doesn't help, any more than you could will your muscles to get stronger."
After more than 80 hours of training over nine months, Sam began to make progress and his symptoms were starting to diminish. But he was so bored he would howl in frustration 30 seconds after his sessions started. He didn't want to continue.
So Dr. Dunne came up with something more fun, more like the computer games his son enjoyed playing. Sam still had electrodes on his head, but had to regulate the electrical activity of his brain in order to use his game console to direct a figure through the maze. If he was not successful, the figure would grow too big to make any progress. It was a hit. Sam continue to improve, Dr. Dunne and his wife were eventually able to wean him off his medications.
Today, he no longer needs to do regular training, but from time to time he plays the game.
He still a challenging child to parent, Dr. Dunne said, but he no longer has a frightening level of anxiety about dogs or the passage of time.
He said he was skeptical about neurofeedback, but now he has invested $100,000 in the brain training system and is looking for partners. He hopes one day it will help other children, and adults.
The meeting on Saturday is the first step to making that happen, said Dr. Reynolds, and to explore other options for helping children with brain disorders.
"We need to bring people who are at the forefront of this and put them in the same room with people who are at the sharp end of diagnosis and treatment and let them educate each other."