Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center looks at video game as tool for food allergy compliance

May 20, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Elizabeth McQuaid, Ph.D., a staff psychologist from the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center, is leading the Phase II trial of an interactive software game developed to help children with food allergies better manage allergy symptoms, social situations and proper food avoidance.

"Pediatric food allergy is a serious health issue that now affects approximately 4 to 8 percent of children. Yet, very few resources for children exist to promote effective management strategies," said McQuaid. "Most resources targeting those with food allergies provide support through support groups or via the web, and typically focus on parents, with few resources designed for affected children."

To address this need, McQuaid's research team has collaborated with a virtual reality and software development company called Virtually Better, Inc. to create an interactive video game app for children between 8 and 12 years old with food allergies called "Food Allergy Adventure." The game's goal is to increase knowledge, improve self-efficacy to manage the disease, and ultimately reduce risk of serious allergic reactions.

The first phase of the study was an open trial format in which children and families provided feedback on the game itself. The study team has now enhanced the game content and expanded its size three-fold based on the feedback. In the first part of this trial, the game was only targeted toward children with peanut allergies, but now the game is also tailored to children with tree nut, milk and egg allergies.

The randomized trial will compare the game's efficacy versus standard education that a child might receive during an office visit with a physician or nurse practitioner. The research team can assess whether children learn more and feel more confident about managing their allergies by using the game.

"In the original game, each child progressed through virtual scenes structured to help them learn about food avoidance, symptom detection and reaction management," said McQuaid. "For example, a child might be offered a food item in the school cafeteria and need to negotiate pressure to accept 'trigger' foods. Now, based on the feedback from families about which social scenes would be most realistic to them, the second phase of the game offers, for example, a grandmother at a family party asking a child why he isn't eating the cookies she baked, or a child at an arcade having to choose safe foods from a food court menu."

The game - now compatible as an app for iPad and Android devices - also offers children a look inside a virtual food pantry to play a label-reading game to decide which foods are safe to eat. There are also interactive scenarios that address how to handle being bullied about food allergies, and games that teach how to identify the symptoms of a reaction.

The study will enroll 100 children in this next phase. Families will be asked to use the software for two weeks, either before or after an office visit with a study health care provider.

"Based on the success of the first version of this game, the project has now expanded using the amazing feedback from the many kids and families who previously participated. The game also includes parent interaction components that provide feedback to parents," says Margo Adams Larsen, Ph.D., director of research at Virtually Better, Inc. "Kids were a part of the development of this new version from the ground up, including the voice actors. This really is a kid built game targeting a significant health issue. Researchers and developers are excited to trial this next version to get more feedback to make bringing this product to final commercialization possible."
The research and development for Food Allergy Adventure is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R42HD075524. For more information about the food allergy game clinical trial, or to participate, please contact Mike Farrow at 444-8652 or

McQuaid's principal affiliation is the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center, a division of the Lifespan health system in Rhode Island. She is also a professor at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, departments of psychiatry and human behavior and pediatrics.

About the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center

Established in 2002, The Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center (BHCRC), located in Providence, R.I, is a collaborative group of nearly 40 child mental health researchers from Bradley Hospital and Hasbro Children's Hospital, both major teaching hospitals for The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Annually, investigators direct more than 50 externally funded projects, and annual external support averages more than $10 million. The BHCRC encompasses a broad spectrum of research programs - exploring new insights into the genetic roots of autism; finding pediatric bio-behavioral markers of bipolar disorder; creating effective therapies for OCD; devising new prevention strategies for adolescent sexual risk behaviors and obesity; examining public health approaches for putting evidence based interventions into practice; and many more - all sharing a commitment to studying the impact of psychological factors on the growth and development of children and their families.

About Virtually Better, Inc.

Virtually Better, Inc., of Decatur, Georgia, is known world-wide as an innovator in the creation of evidence-based, interactive technologies, including virtual reality environments, serious games, and biofeedback, for treatment and training within the healthcare industry. For more information about VBI, visit


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