Video game trains people with schizophrenia to block verbal hallucinations

By Laura Lovett
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A small  recently published in Translational Psychiatry showed that people living with schizophrenia could use a video game paired with an MRI scanner to curb verbal hallucinations.

Specifically, researchers at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience found that after the training people with schizophrenia were able to better control the verbal region in their brain linked to the hallucinations. 

"We encouraged our patients to use the same control strategies that they learnt in the MRI scanner at home,” Natasza Olov, lead researcher, said in a statement. “The patients know when the voices are about to start — they can feel it, so we want them to immediately put this aid into effect to lessen them, or stop the voices completely. Our study has shown that people with schizophrenia can learn some sort of mental strategy to help their symptoms — something which several years of medication has not helped with."

The researchers looked at data from 11 patients with schizophrenia who had verbal hallucinations. This type of hallucination is a common schizophrenia symptom, occurring in around 70 percent of patients, according to the study. However, traditional antipsychotic drugs have little to no effect in 30 percent of those who experience these hallucinations. 

Participants were trained to downregulate the part of their brain within the speech-sensitive region, which is called the superior temporal gyrus. In the study, participants’ neural activity in speech areas was monitored by an MRI scanner. This MRI activity was then represented by a computerized rocket to patients, which they could control with their neural activity, according to a statement from King’s College. During training sessions, participants were told to land the rocket using their, mind but were not given instructions on how to do so, allowing them to come up with their own strategies.

The study took place over five visits. During each visit subsequent to baseline, researchers measured the positive negative symptom scale and psychotic rating symptom scale when training participants on the MRI and video game. Every visit included two rounds of training.

Researchers found a decrease in psychotic rating symptoms over time, although the score would fluctuate between visits. However, during every visit the average psychotic rating score was lower during the second training session than in the first. 

During the last training session, participants were told that the rocket image would remain static, but were asked to employ the same strategies they used during the training to see if the training could be retained. Researchers found that during this final run the psychotic rating symptom score was lower for the first training score, but not as low as it was during the third and fourth visit when the visual was used. 

“The results of this pilot are astonishing as almost everyone in the patient group was able to control the space rocket, successfully bringing the rocket in the game back down to the ground,” Paul Allen, author of the study and professor at the University of Roehampton, said in a statement. “What this means is that by using this technique, patients learnt to control brain activity in the area of the brain that responds to voices — an area we know is hyperactive in people whom experience auditory verbal hallucinations.”

But the MRI and video game training wasn’t the only research this week that suggested video games could play a role in health. Researchers at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language and London Imperial College recently completed a study where they have mapped brain injuries in stroke patients. The authors found that brain areas associated with attention control were related to areas with control of movement. Researchers said that cognitive training therapies, such as video games, could help stroke patients in the future. 

Video games have increasingly found recognition within the digital health space. Notably, Boston-based Akili Interactive Labs has developed a video game to treat pediatric patients with ADHD. Currently, the company is moving ahead with plans to get FDA clearance for the treatment. 

Akili has largely seen success in its research. In a 2015 pilot program, the children that received the therapeutic video game showed significant improvements in their Attention Performance Index, compared with children who received ordinary video games. 

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