Nearly 10 percent of children ages 2-17 in the U.S. have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the U.S., a condition marked by persistent inattention, hyperactivity, distractibility and sometimes impulsivity. Kids with ADHD can do poorly in school and in their social interactions with peers and others.
The UC Davis MIND Institute is testing a high-tech, non-pharmaceutical way to address ADHD and distractibility: virtual reality.
Parents, teachers and other medical providers increasingly rely on the use of medications such as stimulants to help kids concentrate on tasks and reduce hyperactivity so they can learn and function well in their environments. But many medications for ADHD come with side effects, including problems with sleep and appetite, and when children stop taking the medication the positive effects of the drugs end, too.
The UC Davis MIND Institute is developing and testing a high-tech, non-pharmaceutical way to address ADHD and distractibility in general: virtual reality. Researchers are now recruiting 50 children ages 8-12 who are highly distractible and not taking medication for ADHD for the study. Children do not have to have a diagnosis of ADHD to enroll.
"Exposure therapy" aims to help kids overcome distractibility
The study aims to alleviate distractibility through “exposure therapy” and “habituation learning techniques.” Exposure therapy, often used to help people with anxiety, involves exposing the person to the source of the problem to help them overcome it. Habituation learning is a type of learning in which an innate response to something diminishes with repeated exposure to the stimulus.
Participants in the MIND Institute study will wear a VR headset and be tested on how they perform attention-demanding tasks in a virtual classroom environment with a high rate of distractions, such as peers talking or teachers walking by. Children will be required to practice 25-minute daily sessions in the virtual classroom. The sessions can be completed at home.
Testing will require about 25 training sessions over five to six weeks. Researchers hope to determine whether or not the training helps children learn to attend better in the virtual classroom and if improvements in the classroom transfer to real home and school environments.
Virtual reality technology for ADHD and distractibility easy to access
Our long-term goal is to develop interventions that are widely accessible. If a parent could download an app to purchase the treatment, families in many places around the world could access it.”
Julie Schweitzer, Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and a MIND Institute researcher
Schweitzer noted that VR headsets are widely available and dropping in price; there is even an inexpensive cardboard version.
The study is funded with a $1 million award from the National Institutes of Health. If the pilot study is successful, the NIH could fund a much larger project, involving hundreds of subjects. Future studies could also include alternate VR scenarios, such as a homework setting or social situation, and extend to distraction-laden adult workplace situations.
“Distractions are a frequent problem today, whether they’re text messages alerting us while we’re driving, pop-up ads on our computers at work or e-mail alerts coming across our phone when we’re sitting in meetings,” Schweitzer said. “We’re hoping our findings will help others learn how to ignore distractions when they interfere with our health, learning and productivity.”