Schizophrenia affects an estimated 1.5 million American adults annually. It gets even more disheartening when you learn that the chances of premature death (compared to the general population) are 2-3 times higher in these patients.
As a chronic brain disorder, Schizophrenia is typified by symptoms like hallucinations, labored thinking, disorganized speech, and a shortage of motivation.
Medications – along with psychological therapies –effectively manage these symptoms and improve patients’ life quality. However, not all patients can readily access these solutions.
Enter a promising solution more mainstream: video games! Sounds ridiculous?
From the age-long Super Mario arcade games of the 1980s, video gaming has significantly evolved, thanks to brilliant advancements in gaming technologies. It is not for nothing that 164 million adults in the U.S play video games.
Video games promise more interactive, measurable, and less expensive treatment therapies for people with Schizophrenia. These video games have shown impressive promise in improving cognitive impairments associated with Schizophrenia, like poor memory and lack of focus.
Video games are just one dimension of the emergence of computerized treatment procedures for Schizophrenia. These solutions are aimed at helping the brain (in people with these disorders) repair itself.
According to Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus at UC-San Francisco who is also the co-founder of Posit Science, a leading brain training software:
“The complicated set of changes that are occurring in the brain to account for recovery can only occur through the brain basically correcting itself.
It is a natural way, this is a natural benefit, you can say. It’s incredibly more sophisticated than doing what we now do (with therapy and medications).”
This would be an appreciable step up on current therapies we have now that do well at symptom reduction but flop at correcting functional impairment and cognitive deficits.
What does research show about video games and Schizophrenia?
Currently, there are no authoritative scientific findings on video games (on their own) curing Schizophrenia. That said, research into the possibility of treating Schizophrenia with video-gaming-enhanced solutions has been exciting, to say the least.
Improvement in verbal hallucinations
Researchers at the King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience made an interesting discovery about video games and Schizophrenia.
Combing a controlled video gaming experience and MRI technology, patients showed enhanced capacities to control the verbal section associated with hallucinations in their brains.
The research investigated 11 schizophrenic patients who all experienced verbal hallucinations. These patients were trained to manage –specifically downregulating – the superior temporal gyrus section of their brain, which actively controlled sound processing and language comprehension.
In the exercise, neural activity in such speech-sensitive regions of the brain in these patients was supervised by an MRI scanner. Such MRI activity was better demonstrated to the patients in the form of computerized rockets. Patients could regulate the movement of these rockets with their neural activity.
Left with no specific strategies to land the rocket in the training sessions, participants were left to invent and adopt what methods work best for them.
How impressive were the results?
Researchers noticed that the psychotic rating symptom score was falling across the training sessions. Ultimately, the patients showed well-slowed activity in the section of their brains responsible for those verbal hallucinations.
Thanks to such enhanced control of their mental activity, patients could reduce the loudness of the external voices (hallucinations) they heard.
According to Dr. Natasza Orlov, from King’s College London: “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.”
Improvement in negative mental health symptoms
Heather Leutwyler dishes us another spoonful of insightful research pointing to the efficacy of video-gaming-solutions in improving Schizophrenia.
An associate professor of Physiological Nursing at the UC San Francisco School of Nursing, Heather’s research focused on improving negative mental health solutions in schizophrenic patients.
She deploys the famed Kinect system for Xbox to develop interactive and stimulating exercise programs for seniors with Schizophrenia.
At the start, the researchers went with one pilot program in a week. But on massive adoption by staff and residents, the research morphed into three sessions per week, with each session spanning 60 minutes.
For every session, Heather Leutwyler and her team focused on just one mobility skill. This could be aerobic fitness, flexibility, strength training through tai chi, skiing, and a unique “20,000 Leaks” video game.
In the latter, players would use their body parts like feet and hands to fill in leakages in computerized tanks.
Were the results miserable?
Far from it, results sparkled with early successes. Worthy improvements – both statistically and clinically – were recorded in walking speeds.
More than this, Heather Leutwyler and her pack of researchers found that patients demonstrated impressive progress in negative mental health symptoms typically associated with Schizophrenia like demotivation and social withdrawal.
According to Heather Leutwyler:
“In focus groups, [participants] have been telling us they feel more engaged in their health and that it’s easier to get around and do daily activities. They even tell us they notice others in the group having an easier time doing chores around the house.”
Don’t you find this interesting? Imagine that loved one with Schizophrenia gaming his way back to health. Of course, much work remains to be done to establish this reality. But so far, the scent from research has been appetizing, and this future (of gaming-optimized schizophrenia therapies) seems not too distant!