International Meeting for Autism Research (London, May 15-17, 2008): A New Way to Study and to Treat Autism Spectrum Conditions: Video Games for Ecologically Valid Measurement and Therapy

A New Way to Study and to Treat Autism Spectrum Conditions: Video Games for Ecologically Valid Measurement and Therapy

Thursday, May 15, 2008: 10:30 AM
Bourgogne (Novotel London West)
M. K. Belmonte , Department of Human Development, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Background: Integrative studies of autism across levels and domains of cognition demand that subjects remain on task throughout large numbers of experimental trials and paradigms. Such lengthy, demanding and tedious experiments can place experimental control at odds with ecological validity. A way between the horns of this dilemma is offered by embedding experiments within the motivating, engaging, yet strongly regular and systematic environment of a video game.
Objectives: Develop freely available, open-source, extensible software that encapsulates a battery of perceptual, attentional, executive and social cognitive tasks in a video-game format suitable for behavioural and physiological measurements and extensible for therapeutic interventions. Correlate behavioural and EEG measures across cognitive domains, in autism-spectrum probands, their clinically unaffected siblings, and unrelated normal controls.
Methods: A suite of mini-games is themed round a space colony simulator. The format is person-centred and event-driven rather than computer-centred and timed, encouraging players to apply skills at their own pace and on their own terms. Predictable and anxiety-minimising perceptual and social environments afford opportunities not only to demonstrate skills but also to develop them. Measures include motion coherence threshold, go/no-go inhibition, focused and distributed visual and multimodal attention, perceptual disembedding, and first- and second-order "theory of mind." Game events are transparently logged for offline analysis, and can be synchronised with physiological recordings.
Results: Preliminary behavioural and EEG data in autism (joint work with the UCSD Research on Aging and Development Laboratory) suggest elevated motion coherence thresholds, delayed and abbreviated beta EEG suppression and gamma activation in response to coherent motion, and absent frontal N2 during behavioural inhibition. EEG phase coherence analysis and behavioural correlations across task domains are being explored.
Conclusions: Video games offer a new, integrative tool to examine the true nature of autistic cognitive skills behaviourally and physiologically, and the potential to develop these skills therapeutically.
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