A Video Game For Identifying ADHD: Is It Possible?


Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder affecting more than 9.4 percent of children (6.1 million) between ages 2 to 17 in the U.S., according to the most recent data. ADHD is one of the most common childhood neurodevelopmental disorders that lasts till adulthood, characterized by trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors, or being hyperactive. 

At present, ADHD is clinically diagnosed, which means symptoms are identified by health care professionals using the child’s medical history, often supported by scales completed by caregivers and teachers. Therefore, the ADHD diagnosis is mainly dependent on health professionals’ expertise and the caregiver/teacher’s observational skills, which can be subjective on both clinicians’ and caregivers’ sides. 

To address the limitations of the present way of ADHD diagnosis, previous researchers have proposed analyzing patients’ behavior while performing a computerized task. In line with this, researchers from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) and the Complutense University of Madrid, among other institutions, developed a platform that will enable the identification and evaluation of the degree of ADHD in children and adolescents, which we will explore in this article.

What The Study Entails

ADHD is a prevalent disorder affecting millions of children with adverse impacts on their lives, including heightened risks for accidents, higher rates of school dropouts, or a greater possibility of addiction problems. Presently, no diagnostic tests have been developed for ADHD. Clinical diagnoses rely entirely on the judgment of health professionals using the patient’s medical history and observation of caregivers or teachers, which may be biased and inaccurate.

Hence, the researchers of the study published in Brain Sciences proposed a new potential way of diagnosing ADHD through a video game that children are already familiar with to identify the symptoms of ADHD and evaluate the severity of the lack of attention in each case.

In the game, the player has a running avatar portrayed by a raccoon which they have to use to avoid different obstacles in their way. The raccoon has to jump to avoid falling into over 180 holes grouped into 18 blocks, which it will encounter on its route.

Each block is determined by the raccoon’s speed, the trunk’s length, and the hole’s width. The length of the trunk and the avatar’s speed identifies the time between stimuli, which is approximately 1.5, 2.5, and 3.5 seconds. At the same time, the width of the hole measures the difficulty of jumping over each hole.

To test the efficacy of the proposed game, the researchers carried out the study in collaboration with a group of 32 children, aged 8 and 16, diagnosed with ADHD by the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Unit in the Psychiatry Department at the Jiménez Díaz Foundation University Hospital. 

The children were observed by trained professionals when they took the test, which took seven minutes each, and caregivers filled out a behavior classification scale, which aids the evaluation of the severity of ADHD symptoms. 

The researchers assumed that children diagnosed with ADHD inattentive subtype would make more mistakes by omission and jumping closer to the hole as a result of the symptoms of inattention. 

Based on their assessment, the researchers found that the number of times the avatar misses to jump and the median and interquartile range of the jump distances show a significant link with the severity of patients’ inattention. The said association also tends to increase as the time between stimuli increases.

A finding from the study supporting this conclusion states that when the time between stimuli is short, the patient is immersed in the game. In contrast, ADHD patients have difficulty maintaining attention whenever this time is longer. 

The researchers stated that further studies with bigger sample size and administered through various assessment scales would strengthen the study’s initial results. Having a control group will also allow for analyzing whether the proposed game is capable of distinguishing children with ADHD from the participants in the control group.

Overall, the results from the study open up new avenues of research. More importantly, the study provided further evidence supporting the development of diagnostic methods similar to those proposed in the paper, allowing for early diagnosis and thus improving the patient’s prognosis.

Journal Reference

Delgado-Gómez, D., Sújar, A., Ardoy-Cuadros, J., Bejarano-Gómez, A., Aguado, D., Miguelez-Fernandez, C., Blasco-Fontecilla, H., & Peñuelas-Calvo, I. (2020). Objective assessment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) using an infinite runner-based computer game: A pilot study. Brain Sciences, 10(10), 716. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci10100716 

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