Recent research has found that a specially designed video game could relieve symptoms of schizophrenia.
Video games get a bad rap – our kids are spending too much time on them, and their content is often questionable. If some media is taken at face value, video games could be considered single-handedly responsible for a rise in anti-social behaviour!
While there are certainly some disadvantages to this computer-based hobby, recent news shows that one type of video game could calm symptoms of schizophrenia comes as a breath of fresh air.
Schizophrenia is a complex brain disorder characterised by hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t there), delusions (believing things that aren’t true), as well as all or some of the following:
- Disorganised thinking or speech, saying things that don’t make sense
- Apathy, feeling disconnected
- Lack of emotive facial expressions and body language
- Not moving or talking much
- Looking unkempt, neglecting personal hygiene
- Social isolation
- Problems with learning and memory
- Difficulty communicating
- Difficulty making sense of new information and solving problems
- Emotional symptoms, e.g. anxiety, depression
More than 150,000 Australians and 21 million people worldwide are affected by schizophrenia. Symptoms usually develop between 16 and 30 years of age.
What Did the Trial Involve?
Experts at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience and the University of Roehampton tested their theory with a group of 12 volunteers who had been diagnosed by their doctor as having schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder.
People with schizoaffective disorder share some of the symptoms of schizophrenia as well as mood symptoms like depression or bipolar disorder.
The 12 participants in this study were taking stable doses of antipsychotic medication for their condition and still experiencing auditory verbal hallucinations every day.
People who have auditory verbal hallucinations commonly describe it as “hearing voices”. Multiple voices can present at once, muttering or whispering angrily. The voices often make urgent demands on the person, causing significant distress.
Around 70% of people with schizophrenia have these hallucinations. As well as their stress impact, auditory verbal hallucinations make it difficult to work and carry out normal daily activities.
While doctors use antipsychotic medications as the mainstay of treatment for symptoms of schizophrenia, these drugs have little or no effect in 30% of people with auditory verbal hallucinations. Furthermore, traditional antipsychotic medications come with unpleasant side effects which means that many people stop taking them.
Any new treatment that could provide some relief has the potential to greatly improve quality of life for those affected.
Over four sessions, scientists observed the volunteers’ brain activity in an MRI machine while they played a specially developed video game. The game was simple but visually engaging – players used mental techniques to safely bring a space rocket back to earth.
How the Video Game Helped
While the game certainly isn’t as appealing as current console releases, the outcome was impressive. While performing this task, researchers could see that the parts of the brain corresponding to auditory verbal hallucinations lowered their activity.
Moreover, when participants used the same mental techniques without the visual rocket ship aid, the effect continued. This implies that they had learnt strategies to reduce the voices independently.
While these results are promising, we must acknowledge that this was a small study without a control group. Therefore, it is possible that some of the effects were due to placebo. Further research is necessary before we can draw any real conclusions about this technique; the same team is hoping to carry out a larger scale study soon.