UC Davis Mind Institute Hopes Virtual Reality Can Help Students with ADHD

DAVIS -- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, can limit a child's ability to focus and learn in a classroom environment.

Medications are often prescribed for it, which can have side effects.

But what if you could use virtual reality to teach children to ignore distractions and focus in class?

"A lot of people don't have access to a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and I thought there's got to be another way," said Dr. Julie Schweitzer with the UC Davis Mind Institute.

Dr. Schweitzer, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, is working on a unique study. She and a team of researchers developed a virtual classroom as a form of treatment for ADHD.

"What we've created is something that I hope looks like an actual classroom," said Dr. Jared Stokes. "We've tried to put in realistic, virtual children in the environment that move around a little bit. The teacher moves."

Schweitzer says the virtual world reflects what a real classroom would look like, from the desk in front of the student to the ceiling tiles. It also includes many of the same distractions.

"So, the teacher is walking by and you can hear the teacher's heels clicking, which can be a distractor," Schweitzer told FOX40. "When they look out the window, they can see buses and people walking by. Once in a while, some of the avatar kids in the classroom will whisper to one another or cough or sneeze or drop a pencil."

All the while, the student tries to focus on an interactive lesson being presented on the virtual whiteboard.

"We're measuring how well they're doing on the task. We're also measuring their eye movements and things like that," Schweitzer said.

The study involves exposure therapy and a principle called habituation. The researchers describe it as a type of learning in which a person's innate response to something diminishes with repeated exposure to the stimulus.

"And so the idea is if they're less reactive, they're able to focus better. So their performance on the test should be better," Schweitzer said. "They should be looking less at the distractors and so forth. And, hopefully, that'll also generalize to the real environment, the real school setting."

The research is still in its first phase and the UC Davis Mind Institute is looking for volunteers. Students must be between the ages of 8 and 12, have symptoms of distractibility or ADHD and not be on medication for it.

They'll come in for an assessment at the Sacramento office and they'll be given virtual reality equipment to take home to complete 25 sessions over several weeks.

"In the midpoint, about 12 sessions in, they come back and we do a check to see how things are going," Schweitzer said.

Hopefully, when they come back after the sessions are completed they'll be more focused in the real world.

"Being able to do something that, I hope, will actually directly affect people to make their lives easier, I think is really rewarding," Stokes said.

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