June 5, 2012

Video game helps students with fetal alcohol disorder

Dr. Jacqueline Pei (left) is working on research that shows how a video game is helping young people with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder improve their cognitive abilities. Her student, Marnie Hutchison, is one of the interventionists who works closely with the kids.

EDMONTON — Playing video games isn't often seen as the healthiest pastime for young people, but a new educational game is helping re-train the brains of students with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a University of Alberta professor says.

Jacqueline Pei, a registered psychologist who specializes in FASD, is looking into how a computer program called Caribbean Quest can improve the cognitive function of people with the condition.

FASD is caused by maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. People with FASD can struggle with a range of physical, mental and central nervous system disabilities, and face cognitive, behavioural and emotional issues.

"We often see kids who have a very hard time sitting still. We see kids who have a hard time slowing down their responding, so they tend to leap before they look," said Pei, adding that not understanding personal boundaries is another common problem.

"They can also be very emotional because they will become quickly angered and not be good at controlling that."

Pei and a team of doctors from the University of Alberta and University of Victoria — where Caribbean Quest was developed — are working on a study called Executive Functioning Training in Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Twenty-five kids, aged 6-14, are involved, with each spending 12 weeks playing the game.

By completing simple tasks such as capturing fruit in a specific order, students learn to understand instructions, slow their response times and retain information more accurately. Some have done better on math tests.

MRI scans taken from study participants showed changes in the white matter of the brain — evidence that the exercises are having an effect.

A key factor in the students' success is having an "interventionist," or coach, alongside while they're playing.

"We're seeing what strategies they're using to make it through the game and helping them try different strategies to make things work," said Marnie Hutchison, an interventionist and PhD student at the University of Alberta.

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