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Memory boost for schizophrenia patients

Computer based brain-trainer game improves learning and episodic memory

Mark Gould

Monday, 03 August 2015

A brain-training computer game could improve the daily lives of people with schizophrenia, say University of Cambridge researchers writing* in the Philosophical Transactions B.

While their initial research has only been based on a small number of patients, those who played the game over four weeks found improvements in memory and learning.

Doctors say this could help people to get back to work or studying after a diagnosis. As well as developing florid psychotic symptoms, patients with schizophrenia also develop episodic memory loss, an inability to remember where to find everyday things, and cognition problems, thus hampering their ability to function independently.

There are as yet no licensed pharmaceutical treatments to improve cognitive functions for people with schizophrenia. However, there is increasing evidence that computer-assisted training and rehabilitation can help people with schizophrenia overcome some of their symptoms, with better outcomes in daily functioning and their lives.

Designed and developed by researchers at Cambridge with the help of patients, the brain-training game has a wizard theme with various levels of difficulty. It asks players to enter rooms, find items in boxes and remember where they put them, testing their so-called episodic memory.

The researchers assigned twenty-two participants, with diagnosis of schizophrenia, to either the cognitive training group or a control group at random. Participants in the training group played the memory game for a total of eight hours over a four-week period; participants in the control group continued their treatment as usual. At the end of the four weeks, the researchers tested all participants’ episodic memory as well as their level of enjoyment and motivation, and their score on the Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) scale, which doctors use to rate the social, occupational, and psychological functioning of adults.

The patients who had played the memory game made significantly fewer errors and needed significantly fewer attempts to remember the location of different patterns in the episodic memory test relative to the control group. In addition, patients in the cognitive training group saw an increase in their score on the GAF scale.

Participants in the cognitive training group indicated that they enjoyed the game and were motivated to continue playing across the eight hours of cognitive training. In fact, the researchers found that those who were most motivated also performed best at the game. This is important, as lack of motivation is another common facet of schizophrenia.

One of the researchers, Professor Barbara Sahakian, from the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said patients who played it made significantly fewer errors in tests afterwards on their memory and brain functioning. She said this was an indication that they were better prepared to function in the real world.

Professor Sahakian says: “We need a way of treating the cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia, such as problems with episodic memory, but slow progress is being made towards developing a drug treatment. So this proof-of-concept study is important because it demonstrates that the memory game can help where drugs have so far failed. Because the game is interesting, even those patients with a general lack of motivation are spurred on to continue the training.”

She added that the memory game could help where drugs had so far failed - with no side-effects.

"Because the game is interesting, even those patients with a general lack of motivation are spurred on to continue the training."

Although the results are promising, the research team said more research was needed on larger groups of patients to confirm the findings.

The researchers added that any memory training games had to be used in conjunction with medication and psychological therapies.

* Barbara J. Sahakian, et al. The impact of neuroscience on society: cognitive enhancement in neuropsychiatric disorders and in healthy people. Philosophical Transactions B, published 3 August 2015. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0214

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