New ‘brain training’ app could improve lives of people with schizophrenia

3 Aug

Researchers have created a new game for people with schizophrenia that they say can improve their memory and help them work and live independently.

Wizard Brain Training App.
Wizard requires players to remember the location of patterns in space correctly, rewarding their success with additional in-game activities.
Image credit: University of Cambridge

A study published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B reveals how Wizard, an app created for the iPad, was developed and tested with a group of 22 participants who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Lead author Prof. Barbara Sahakian, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, UK, says that a way of treating the cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia is needed, but slow progress is being made toward developing a drug treatment.

“So this proof-of-concept study is important because it demonstrates that the memory game can help where drugs have so far failed,” she continues. “Because the game is interesting, even those patients with a general lack of motivation are spurred on to continue the training.”

Schizophrenia is a severe chronic brain disorder that affects how people perceive the world. People with the condition can experience a variety of symptoms, including “losing touch with reality,” disruption to normal emotions and behaviors and problems with cognitive function.

The condition can be very disabling and can make it difficult for people to maintain relationships or stay in employment. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, this illness occurs in around 1% of the US population.

Symptoms of psychosis such as hallucinations can be controlled with current forms of medication, but there are as yet no licensed pharmaceutical treatments available to improve cognitive functioning.

A recent systematic review indicated that computerized practice could be used to improve a range of cognitive areas such as episodic memory in people with schizophrenia. As reports have found that cognitive therapy sessions for people with schizophrenia have high drop-out rates, the researchers thought that a form of video-game training might have better outcomes.

“Computer games that are custom-made to be enjoyable, attention-grabbing and easily accessible may thus comprise an appealing treatment option for patients and a cost-effective option for health services,” the authors write.

Participants enjoyed playing the game and were motivated to continue

As a result, they developed Wizard, designing the game to improve a player’s episodic memory. The game developers augmented a memory task with a story in which the player could choose and name their own character, and players were rewarded with additional in-game activities that were independent of the cognitive training.

A total of 22 participants with schizophrenia were randomly assigned to either continue their normal treatment or to a cognitive training group that would play Wizard for 8 hours over the course of 4 weeks.

Fast facts about schizophrenia

  • Schizophrenia occurs in 10% of people with a first-degree relative with the disorder
  • Symptoms of the disorder typically start between the ages 16-30
  • People with schizophrenia are not usually violent.

Learn more about schizophrenia

After the 4 weeks, the researchers tested the episodic memory of each participant. They also measured the participants’ levels of enjoyment and motivation and calculated their scores on the Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) scale – a scale used to measure social, occupational and psychological functioning.

The researchers found that the participants assigned to play the computer game had significantly better episodic memories than the control group while also scoring higher on the GAF scale. These participants also reported enjoying the game and were motivated to continue playing it throughout the study’s duration.

While they are unsure precisely how using the app improved the participant’s functioning, the researchers believe that improvements in episodic memory could be the cause. Alternatively, improvements to motivation and self-esteem caused by cognitive training may be a factor.

Co-author Prof. Peter Jones believes that the results are promising and suggest that there may be the potential to use game apps to improve not only episodic memory but also functioning in routine activities.

“We will need to carry out further studies with larger sample sizes to confirm the current findings, but we hope that, used in conjunction with medication and current psychological therapies, this could help people with schizophrenia minimize the impact of their illness on everyday life,” he concludes.

Recently, Medical News Today reported on a meta-analysis published in The Lancet Psychiatry that examined the association between smoking and psychosis.

Written by James McIntosh

Copyright: Medical News Today

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