Research says virtual reality games can aid in early detection of autism, ADHD symptoms

Scientists say virtual reality games, coupled with eye tracking and machine learning systems, can show differences in eye movement, leading to early detection of conditions such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

ADHD affects around 6 percent of children worldwide, and despite decades of research, its diagnosis still relies on surveys, interviews and subjective observations, causing test results to be uncertain, including researchers from Aalto University in Finland.

Children with ADHD experience attention difficulties, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, which may persist into adulthood.

In a new study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers developed a virtual reality game called EPELI that could potentially be used to assess ADHD symptoms by simulating everyday situations.

The experiment included 37 children diagnosed with ADHD and 36 children who were a control group.

The kids played EPELI and another game, Shoot the Target, in which players are instructed to find surrounding objects and “shoot” them by looking at them.

According to scientists, EPELI presents children with a list of tasks that simulate daily life, such as brushing their teeth and eating a banana.

In these tasks, players have to remember the tasks despite the distractions in the environment, such as the television on.

The game evaluates how children play, including how many times they click on controls and how efficiently they perform tasks.

“Efficiency is associated with daily functioning, whereas children with ADHD often have difficulties,” said Topi Siro, one of the study’s authors.

Using the game, machine learning and eye tracking, the researchers tracked children’s natural eye movements as they performed different tasks in a virtual reality game.

“Children with ADHD’s gaze paused longer on different objects in the environment, and their gaze jumped from one point to another more quickly and more often,” said study co-author Liya Merzon of Aalto University.

“This may indicate a delay in visual system development and poorer information processing than other children,” he explained.

In further studies, the scientists hope to test broader therapeutic applications for virtual reality games.

“We showed that a natural VR task combined with eye tracking provides accurate estimation of attention deficits, paving the way for precise diagnosis,” the scientists wrote in the study.

They believe that such games could be used in the future as an aid to ADHD rehabilitation, as they can gather information about behavior while still fully controlling what happens in the stimulus world.

“We want to develop a gamification-based digital therapy that can help kids with ADHD get excited about doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do,” said project leader Juha Salmitaival.

The researchers say VR games could be further developed to measure problems in planning activities and flexibility in people with autism.

With some modifications, they say, the games could be developed to assess language problems, brain trauma, adult ADHD, and even memory deterioration with age.

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