A computer-based cognitive therapy for schizophrenia patients has been developed and is described in a recent review by an interdisciplinary group of Cambridge researchers, lead by Professor Barbara Sahakian. The team, which consists of Cambridge-based psychologists, neuroscientists and a game-designer, has developed a computer game to improve cognitive function in schizophrenia patients.
The review by Professor Sahakian and colleagues is very wide in scope, highlighting the importance of treatment of cognitive symptoms, discussing the state of evidence in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson disease, ADHD and schizophrenia, and even looking at potential benefits for healthy individuals. In contrast, the game has a relatively narrow focus: it was designed like a real computer game, and had to be attention-grabbing, motivating and easy to understand. The basic task of the game was to correctly remember the location of patterns in space. Full details are described in the review.
The study that tested the game was conducted on 22 participants who all suffered from schizophrenia, where 10 played the game for a total of 8 hours over 4 weeks, and 12 received treatment as usual. Both episodic memory and global assessment of functioning (GAF) was tested at the beginning of the study and after four weeks. GAF refers to testing social, occupational and psychological function and can be seen as a measure of functioning at daily activities.
As it turned out, the group who played the computer game not only improved their episodic memory (which was specifically targeted by the game), but also improved their functioning at daily activities as measured through the GAF. The researchers speculate that this might be either a direct result of the game, or it might be because the game improves self-esteem, and this leads to a higher level of functioning.
This is only a small study, but it highlights the need for more research and the potential for ‘neurotechnology’ to be used alongside more traditional psychological and pharmacological treatments. There is great interest in this, and the study received a lot of media attention.
The game is available as an extension to brain training app Peak.
We spoke to Tom Piercy, the game developer who developed the computer game used in the study. He highlighted the excitement of this new field: “A great game grabs the undivided attention of patients for hours. By using this attention wisely, we hope to be able to use the motivational aspects of gaming to the benefit of patients!”