Helping young brains grow

by | Jun 15, 2018 | Blog

The Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) has for the past three years been developing and piloting a computer game aimed at improving the cognitive development – that is, memory, attention and processing speed – of children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Children with FASD can show a variety of deficits like physical disabilities, stunted growth and numerous developmental delays, as a result of prenatal exposure to alcohol.

One of the areas with the highest prevalence of FASD in South Africa is the West Coast in the Western Cape, where there are 64 children per 1000 births who are affected by FASD. Compared to the estimated global average of 1.5  children per 1000 births, it is clear that South Africa has a massive challenge.

Due to resource challenges and a lack of access to services, many children do not have the opportunity to improve their cognitive function. We need to develop and provide low-cost and widely accessible remedial tools that do not need professionals to administer them. We identified the need to make what is available more accessible in the South African context. The idea for using a computer game as a form of remediation is not unique to our project and has shown success internationally, such as Carribean Quest, a computer game also aimed at improving cognitive function in children with FASD.

With the initial funding from Innovation Edge, we were able to make our dream of developing an intervention strategy a reality, and we are currently evaluating these efforts to see if we can make a real impact on the brain development of affected children.

The game engages children in activities that stimulate the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways. Using a  range of image matching activities, the game exercises the important cognitive functions of attention, working memory and inhibition. The cognitive abilities required to play are varied by changing how the images are displayed, how many images are displayed etc.

Initial piloting of the game was done on a sample of 11 children in Mfuleni, Western Cape. Based on the pilot’s outcomes, FARR has managed to leverage more than R1 million in funding from AWARE and the Partnership for Alcohol and AIDS Intervention Research for the project. This is more than 10 times the initially provided funding for the project.

We have obtained the cooperation of the Saldanha Bay Municipality to run a randomised control trial of the game in the West Coast and are currently busy with the recruitment of the first cohort of participants.

We are looking forward to starting the trial in order to measure the game’s impact on the cognitive functioning of our participants. Over the next 6 months we will be working with a group of children, both exposed to alcohol in utero and not, in order to put our game to the test. Upon completion of this trial we will work with the participating ECD centres to make the game available to them and look into ways of freely distributing the game for general use.

Should the randomised control trial show an impact, we can work towards improving the game and incorporating it into the Educator and Psychologist training provided by FARR. We can also share it with other FASD prevention organisations to make effective remediation available anywhere where there is a tablet or a smartphone.

About the Author

Jaco Louw is a project manager at FARR. He has been involved in alcohol-related research since 2013 and has been involved with numerous FASD studies.