As of today, there is one fundamental treatment for ADHD—medication.
Clinicians first started diagnosing ADHD and treating it with medication in the 1930s but since the 1990s, there has been a significant climb in the number of children diagnosed, causing a big demand for medication. And yet families of children with ADHD often struggle with the decision of whether to medicate their children, since it comes with a variety of unpredictable side effects, such as insomnia, which can lead to dangerous behaviors like serious substance dependence or even abuse.
But does medication have to be the only way to treat ADHD? What if it could be treated in an organic, hands-on way?
These are questions Jake Stauch, an ambitious 20-something and CEO of venture-backed Neuro+, asked himself when he came up with his own less-invasive ADHD treatment.
His brainchild Neuro+ offers products more engaging to a child than taking pills every day. The first is a dragon-themed video game platform that is fun, while also developing and strengthening kids’ attention skills in a healthy, non-medicated way. It launches this summer.
But just as exciting is a new partnership with Angry Birds-maker Rovio to bring Neuro+ attention-training technology to its popular bird-themed games. And Stauch envisions a future for Neuro+ that includes treating addiction and depression and improving the performance of athletes or active military.
He plans to “eventually provide a variety of game-based training applications to help individuals improve their cognitive functioning.”
The Back Story
Stauch is somewhat of a prodigy.
In high school, he was “accustomed to stellar academic achievements,” according to an article from a newspaper local to Summerville, S.C., his home during his high school years.
The story mentions that he took the SAT as a 7th-grader and made an uncommon 1300 out of 1600, a score that would make most high schoolers jealous.
But the real triumph occurred his junior year of high school, when he scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT while ill from a serious case of bronchitis.
Stauch’s achievement was significant. The news feature says that 269 students across the nation and only one in South Carolina achieved the rare 2400 score in the year before Stauch attempted the test.
Connie Coyle, his Advanced Placement European history teacher at Summerville High School, refers to him as having a “quiet intelligence,” with no need to show off in class.
“Everything he does, he does well. He stands out, even among a class of AP students,” she says in the article.
Stauch’s intellectual distinctiveness earned him admission to Duke University, where he began a new path that integrated science with entrepreneurship. The seeds of Neuro+ began when, as a freshman biology major, he decided to add a Neuroscience 101 elective to his course schedule.
A particular experiment taught during the class stood out to him. In a 2007 study from the journal Neuron, participants’ brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a tool that detects blood flow changes to measure activity in specific sections of the brain. The tool helped test how people make decisions by associating a product’s prices with the participants’ desire for the product. The example Stauch remembers most when referring to the study is Godiva chocolates.
The chocolates and 79 other products were displayed to the participants on a screen and, after four seconds, a price was shown below the item. Then, four seconds later, a box would appear on each side of the screen. One box was labeled “YES” and the other “NO.” The participant had to decide whether to buy or pass on the product.
The researchers found that weighing possible outcomes influences decision-making.
Inspired by the study’s results, Stauch declared an economics minor in addition to his biology major and began to split coursework between a trifecta of three great passions: neuroscience, biology and economics. He began conducting research on how consumers respond to advertisements, a relatively new practice called “neuromarketing.”
From 2009 to 2012, he worked as a research assistant at the Duke Center for Cognitive Neuroscience with Dr. Greg Appelbaum, his informal advisor, studying “neurofeedback,” a technique in which the brain can be trained to help improve its ability to regulate all bodily functions and, basically, to take care of itself.
Dr. Appelbaum remembers that “he was a great student and he wanted to change the world.”
To do so, Stauch founded NeuroSpire his sophomore year.
NeuroSpire is an affordable neuromarketing software for researchers to measure the brain activity of participants in scientific studies. To measure activity, NeuroSpire uses electroencephalograms (EEGs), which are devices that detect electrical activity in the brain through small, flat metal disks that attach to the scalp.
Still on the market today, NeuroSpire makes it easier for scientists, regardless of experience level, to gather data and insights on how the media really affects the consumer.
After dropping out of Duke in 2012 to focus on his company, Stauch won grants from the local Startup Madness competition, the Duke University Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative and NC IDEA to develop his software. And pretty soon after, he was fielding requests from customers to use the software with kids with ADHD, believing it might help eliminate their symptoms.
ADHD is characterized by three main symptoms: inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity. The initial software could track ADHD patients’ focus, physical movement and control while engaging in a study. But Stauch quickly realized that gaming would better engage kids.
And that eventually led to Neuro+, which combines gaming with neurofeedback, a technique some scientists have already used to treat ADHD and others have suggested in scientific journals.
Stauch views attention as a skill that children can hone and improve through training. So neurofeedback made sense.
What’s unique about the game is its storyline, which becomes more detailed and complex over time, forcing kids to stay focused as they play. The neurofeedback aspect (using brain waves from the EEGs) then controls the speed of the dragon, the size of the shield and other game mechanics that can train players’ focus, says Stauch. Biofeedback (the physical version of neurofeedback) helps with the hyperactivity symptom of ADHD. In order to control and train the players’ motion, the game penalizes them by taking away points and shaking the screen whenever they move.
“We think it’s about the mindset of training and improving. Thinking of attention as a skill is how we want to talk about and treat ADHD,” Stauch says.
This relates to the golem effect, an idea discussed in a post on Neuro+’s blog. The golem effect is similar to the idea of the “self-fulfilling prophecy,” where low self or societal expectations cause individuals to perform worse than they would if they were expected to do well on a task or project.
Stauch says that his goal is not to make children aware of the fact that they have a disorder, since a direct ADHD diagnosis may trigger the golem effect.
“Developing normally is hard if a child is always aware that they’re struggling with a disorder. Saying to the child, ‘You’re struggling with attention issues’ is better than diagnosing ADHD and helps with the child’s view of himself and his potential,” he adds.
Dr. David Rabiner, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke, says the gaming approach Stauch has adopted is unique because it allows ADHD to be treated at home. Most treatments happen in a clinical setting.
The promise of Neuro+ is tremendous, adds Dr. Rabiner, who focuses his research on finding ways to improve the academic performance of children with ADHD. And it would be even more promising if Stauch and his team are able to conduct studies and publish conclusive evidence with valuable data that shows Neuro+ to work for ADHD treatment.
The reason studies are so critical is because neurofeedback is controversial, says Dr. Rabiner. Some scientists argue that the research isn’t conclusive because most of the evidence has not been officially proven. Others feel the evidence is compelling.
“Overall,” he adds, “The general consensus in the field of ADHD study using neurofeedback is that the weight of the research is supporting that it works, but the evidence is not conclusive.”
Many studies have investigated the effects of neurofeedback on ADHD symptoms since first reports in 1976, indicates one study that collected and analyzed 15 reliable studies on neurofeedback in ADHD patient treatment that both supported and didn’t support it.
The researchers, in order to select reputable previous research for study, set criteria that eliminated any possible slanting towards one side or the other that wasn’t backed by scientifically sound data. The study concluded that neurofeedback treatment for ADHD has substantial efficacy stating,“The clinical effects of neurofeedback in the treatment of ADHD can be regarded as clinically meaningful.”
This study supports ventures like Neuro+.
And, according to Dr. Appelbaum, Stauch’s approach is compelling “because it’s a thoughtful, powerful combination of EEG signals” and “because everyone loves video games.”
Stauch attracted the attention of investors with his plans for Neuro+. In June 2014, he raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Splashpond, LLC and Capital A Partners, enough to finish initial development of the game.
In mid-2016, Stauch says he will probably need to raise additional capital to scale things up.
When Neuro+ is released later this summer, Stauch and his team plan to market online through finely targeted Facebook advertisements to mothers with ADHD children and Neuro+ blog content, centered around research and resources for ADHD families, specifically those with kids as young as 6 and as old as into adulthood. Stauch found that the demographic with the most desperation are parents of boys ages 7 to 10.
The Neuro+ team also plans to meet with clinicians to discuss the research that supports the invention, in hopes that they will recommend the software to their patients, instead of immediately turning to medication for treatment.
Stauch and his team have already tested Neuro+ with Dr. Robyn Claar’s patients at Triangle Center for Behavioral Health in Durham. Claar and Stauch began working together back in 2013.
“My patients have really enjoyed using Neuro+,” says Dr. Claar. “They find the program to be interesting and entertaining.”
Dr. Claar adds, “Many of the families I work with want to have options other than medication (or addition to medication) for ADHD treatment.”
When Neuro+ is released, customers will pay a subscription of $99 per month to rent an EEG headset, manufactured by Emotive, which measures their movement as well as their brainwaves. Customers will also receive access to Neuro+ attention training software, available for Mac, PC, iOS and Android.
It is recommended that the patients play the game for 30 minutes, three times per week, Stauch says.
“Neuro+ is a great product,” Dr. Claar says, adding that there is “amazing potential” for it to help kids and adolescents with their attention training.
Neuro+, like many other fellow startups, has faced its set of challenges.
“With an ADHD product, it’s hard to convince parents to take a risk,” Stauch says.
With any new venture, especially if it’s scientific, it can be difficult to stay afloat when the idea has to be tested and proven before people will buy it. It helps that there is increasing interest in startups that combine neuroscience and technology–colloquially named “neurotechnology.”
NeuroLaunch, in Atlanta, is an accelerator that provides neurotechnology startups seed funding, access to top research facilities and mentorship from Atlanta’s neuroscience and software startup professionals over a 90-day period. A Neuro Startup Challenge is an international competition to help launch startups based on inventions related to neuroscience. And AngelList lists 98 neuroscience companies and more than 1,000 interested investors in these new companies trying to understand or manipulate the brain.
All that momentum should be helpful when it comes time to raise more money. In the meantime, Neuro+ will focus on helping families and kids deal with ADHD and proving gaming to be a viable alternative to drugs.
Stauch compares his company’s mission to something whitewater rafting instructors tell rafters right before their journey into the water: “Be a part of your own rescue.”