Computer games could help people with schizophrenia
Computer games could help people with schizophrenia Kieran Salsone

New computer game to help people with schizophrenia

A COMPUTER game designed by neuroscientists has helped patients with schizophrenia to recover their ability to carry out everyday tasks that rely on having a good memory, a study has found.

Patients who played the game regularly for a month were four times better than non-players at remembering the kinds of things that are critical for normal, day-to-day life, researchers said.

The computer game was based on scientific principles known to ''train'' the brain in episodic memory, which helps people to remember events such as where they parked a car or placed a set of keys, said Professor Barbara Sahakian of Cambridge University, the study's lead author.

People recovering from schizophrenia suffer serious lapses in episodic memory that prevent them from returning to work or studying, so anything that can improve the ability of the brain to remember everyday events will help them to lead a normal life, Professor Sahakian added.

''This kind of memory is essential for everyday learning and everything we do, really, both at home and at work. We have formulated an iPad game that could drive the neural circuitry behind episodic memory by stimulating the ability to remember where things were on the screen,'' Professor Sahakian said.

Schizophrenia affects about one in every hundred people and results in hallucinations and delusions - it is estimated to cost the NHS about £2bn a year in treatment alone, with wider costs for society such as lost work.

Although the main symptoms can be treated with antipsychotic drugs, there is no proven drug therapy for treating losses in episodic memory, which has led scientists to find ways of training the brain through computer-based games.

''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,'' Professor Sahakian said.

''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.

Game designers worked alongside the Cambridge researchers for nine months to develop a gaming app called Wizard, which plays on the idea of having to remember different locations of characters on the screen of an iPad.

Patients were involved in the game design to ensure they would understand it and enjoy it, Professor Sahakian said.

The study, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, involved 22 patients with schizophrenia who played the game for eight hours over a period of four weeks, with players of the game being compared with non-players in terms of a psychological test known as global assessment functioning (GAF).