Virtual Ritalin. An online game has just been released that just might fix off-task students.

The idea of rewiring our brains - and therefore our behaviour - through cognitive training has been around for a while. But we're now getting to the stage where the neuroscience is so good (thanks to FMRI machines and thousands of studies) that we can know which kinds of cognitive tasks make the most difference to brain function and performance.

ADHD? There's now an app for that too.

Researchers from the Clinical Neuroscience Institute at Cambridge University have developed a cognitive training app (called "Decoder") that helps to improve attention and concentration. In the game, users play a secret service officer tasked with breaking a global criminal organization by identifying different combinations of numbers strings in distracting missions. Every time you win a mission, the app unlocks the clues to the next crime spot.

In a study (recently published in the scientific journal 'Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience') researchers noticed that participants who played Decoder two hours per week for four weeks showed neurological improvements* in concentration and attention - which were comparable to those taking stimulants such as methylphenidate (aka Ritalin). Also, researchers found that "subjective measures of enjoyment, motivation, alertness and positive mood remained at high levels in those who played Decoder after an hour of play".

(* At the start and end of the trial, the participants were tested using the CANTAB Rapid Visual Information Processing test, which is considered by researchers to be a valid and reliable test of attention and concentration.)

Could this be a drug-free evidence-based approach to treating middle school and high school students with ADHD?

According to Professor Barbara Sahakian from Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry, playing Decoder on an iPad for eight hours over one month will improve focusing ability.

To save teachers and parents time here are the dot points:

  • The Decoder game is only available for Apple devices at this stage (Android next year)

  • It is one of 47 games found within an app called 'PEAK'

  • The app is free but you will have to do an in-app purchase and upgrade to 'PEAK PRO' in order to access the Decoder game.

  • I would recommend signing up for PEAK PRO for one month only ($7.99) then trial playing Decoder in moderation for one month - then ask friends, family and teachers if they've noticed a difference - before committing to a yearly subscription ($55)

  • The game is probably too hard for students under Year 5.

Of course the true test is the change in concentration in the classroom. But at $7.99 it could be worth a go to see if it might help a student struggling to focus on their learning. (Perhaps an opportunity for an in-school action research project?)

We have lots of struggling students where even a small improvement is a great achievement to celebrate. But, despite the best efforts of parents and teachers, there are still those students who seem stuck with no sign of change.

I would like to see our education system looking more and more towards the cognitive sciences for new and innovative interventions that will address learning problems at their root. As I say at a lot of my workshops: the best solutions to education problems are often found outside of education.


James Phelps

View Decoder being played on an iPad here: