Video Games Lend Hope to Schizophrenia Sufferers

Managing schizophrenia with games

Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder that affects everything from how a person feels, to how they think and reason, and perceive reality and the world around them. Schizophrenia isn’t quite as common as other mental disorders such as General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or Manic Depression, but its symptoms can be highly disabling.

Schizophrenia usually manifests in an individual between the ages of 16 and 30. Childhood Schizophrenia does occur, but this isn’t commonplace. Symptoms fall into 1 of 3 categories: positive, negative and cognitive. Positive symptoms border on the psychotic and include hallucinations and delusions. Negative symptoms are less extreme and may merely involve unusual emotional responses, for example a reduced sense of pleasure in everyday activities. Cognitive symptoms tend to be the least severe or disabling, and relate mostly to a person’s memory. People suffering from cognitive symptoms generally do not have psychotic episodes. An example would be difficulty focusing or paying attention.

The Future: Video Games As Cure 

Finding a cure for Schizophrenia isn’t a real possibility until such time as a specific cause has been pinpointed for any illness or disorder. As such, the focus is very much still on treating the symptoms and making life as easy as possible for the person suffering, as opposed to treatment in order to cure.

Antipsychotic drugs, behavioural therapy, psychosocial treatments and coordinated specialty care have all been identified as effective methods for the symptomatic treatment of Schizophrenia.

These are widely accepted as being highly effective, but recently, a new kid on the block has entered the playing field: video games.

Healing Properties of Gaming

It has long been established that engaging in and playing a video game induces physical structural changes to the brain. Studies show that when someone is in the process of engaging with a video game, changes to the regions responsible for spatial orientation, the formation of memories, motor skills as well as strategic planning comes into play. This is mainly because of the fact that the very challenges embedded into video games stimulate the parts of the brain responsible for these faculties. Just about any game can stimulate these changes, from a puzzle game like Tetris to a casino game like Roulette, or a strategy game like Mine Craft.

When the relevant parts of the brain are then engaged and stimulated, subtle changes start taking place as new thought patterns are formed. For this reason, video game training has been earmarked as a crucial field of research in the study of mental illnesses such as Schizophrenia, PTSD and even Alzheimer and Dementia.

The effect that video games have on the brain as well as the subsequent benefits to a patient’s mental health, especially those suffering from Schizophrenia, classifies in the category of cognitive remediation. Video games, in effect, have the power to literally make physical changes to the brain over a prolonged period of time.

Why Video Games Work

It may not be the very first course of action that springs to mind when considering a treatment for a complicated mental disorder such as Schizophrenia, but video games are proving highly effective in teaching patients to gain better control of their faculties involving hearing and speech, especially those given to audio hallucinations.

The basic premise is that a patient will learn how to regulate certain parts of the brain governing hearing and speech by performing an exercise as simple as landing a rocket ship within a basic video game. This is done by means of real-time magnetic resonance imaging technology.

All of this became clear during a study performed by researchers from King’s College Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience as well as those from the University of Roehampton in London. The study, which was recently published in Translational Psychiatry, involved 12 participants suffering from Schizophrenia. All of the participants regularly experienced Auditory Verbal Hallucinations (AVH) and were taught to regulate certain parts of the brain governing auditory and verbal functions by means of the video game and rocket ship concept.

Dr. Natasza Orlov, lead researcher on the project, is of the firm opinion that real-time magnetic resonance imaging neurofeedback experiments could play a functional part in the way that we understand the regions of the brain involved in auditory verbal hallucinations. He also believes that this will shed some light as to whether the brain may be trained to alter certain activities and responses within the scopes of these networks.

The 12 study participants were required to perform all kinds of mental tasks over a period of two weeks, by making use of the video game technology and the rocket ship whilst inside of an MRI machine. After 4 rounds of play each over the 2 week period, participants were able to suppress the auditory hallucinations that were brought on by Schizophrenia.

The outcome of the study suggests that it is in fact possible to control auditory responses; even those associated with a disorder such as Schizophrenia, with the help of video game technology and in the future, this type of treatment may well be used on a more regular basis.

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