A new brain training game works like "digital ritalin" to improve focus, researchers have shown and are hopeful it could replace controversial 'chemical cosh' drugs.
The University of Cambridge has launched a free app which they claim provides a 'welcome antidote to daily distractions' helping to calm and focus the mind so that people can perform tasks with greater focus.
The game called Decoder, invites users to tap the screen when a number combination appears helping to promote "flow", the state of complete concentration which allows people to operate at the top of their ability.
Trials on 75 people showed that performance after playing the came was comparable to taking Ritalin, a common treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
"We've all experienced coming home from work feeling that we've been busy all day, but unsure what we actually did," said Prof Barbara Sahakian from the Department of Psychiatry, at Cambridge University.
"Most of us spend our time answering emails, looking at texts, searching social media and multitasking.
"But instead of getting a lot done, we sometimes struggle to complete even a single task and fail to achieve our goal for the day. Then we go home, and even there we find it difficult to 'switch off' and read a book or watch TV without picking up our smartphones.
"For complex tasks we need to get in the 'flow' and stay focused."
The team developed the app after becoming concerned that young people were having more difficulty sustaining attention and concentration because of a constant slew of emails, texts, notifications and updates.
In the new study published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience, the researchers demonstrated that playing Decoder on an iPad for eight one-hour spells over one month improved attention and concentration, activating an important network in the brain.
The improved focus remained when players shifted their attention to a different kind of test.
The team is hopeful it could be used for people who have conditions which make concentration difficult such as ADHD or traumatic brain injury.
Between two and five per cent of schoolchildren have ADHD and drug use to control the problem has doubled in the past ten years with doctors with NHS prescriptions in Britain rising from 761,763 items in 2007 to 1,654,694 in 2017.
"Apart from healthy people, we hope the game will be beneficial for patients who have impairments in attention, including those with ADHD or traumatic brain injury," added Prof Sahakian
"We plan to start a study with traumatic brain injury patients this year."
The game is being distributed by app developer Peak, who specialise in evidence-based "brain training" apps and it was released in the App Store for free.
Dr George Savulich added: "Many brain training apps on the market are not supported by rigorous scientific evidence. It is engaging and fun. The level of difficulty is matched to the individual player and participants enjoy the challenge of the cognitive training."
How the Decoder app works
• During the test, participants are asked to detect sequences of digits (e.g. 2-4-6, 3-5-7, 4-6-8).
• A white box appears in the middle of the screen, from which digits from 2 to 9 appear in a pseudo-random order, at a rate of 100 digits per minute.
• Participants are instructed to press a button every time they detect a sequence.
• The test takes about five minutes.