Researchers developing computer game to treat depression

A research group headed by Aalto University Professor Matias Palva is developing a computer game that could help in the treatment of depression alongside therapy and drug treatment. Globally, depression is a leading cause of disability and costs incurred from depression make up one-eighth of the costs of all types of brain disorders.

The game looks and feels like a modern action video game, where the player solves challenges in a fantasy city. Where it differs from entertainment games, however, is that there is a complicated network of features beneath the surface, which together produce a therapeutic effect.

The computer game has its origins in research into amblyopia, or lazy eye. In a study testing a drug for amblyopia treatment, the researchers observed that that the patients’ visual acuity improved with the help of a perceptual training video game. Drug treatment had no effect on visual improvement.

‘We noticed that the targeted video games make it possible to alleviate the symptoms of a brain disease that was thought to be permanent’ Matias Palva says.

Support for therapy

The previous version of the game was tested in a clinical study involving the Helsinki University Hospital Psychiatry Department, the University of Helsinki, and Mental Hub. Trial participants played a computer game for eight weeks during which symptoms of depression eased and cognitive function improved among active players, although the change was not as great as what was achieved through conventional treatments. In the next phase, the research team will work on developing the game to boost its therapeutic effects, which will be tested in controlled experiment with patients.

Work taking place between therapy sessions is important in the successful treatment of patients with depression. Cognitive skills can be practised daily, and the game can help support this.

‘The number of people who suffer from milder symptoms of depression is two- to three-fold compared to those with diagnosable depressive syndromes. There is great demand for all cost-effective aids for all these groups,’ says Erkki Isometsä, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Helsinki and Chief Physician of the HUS Psychiatry Department.

Isometsä, however, emphasises that the game has its limitations.

‘It is not suitable for the elderly, for those with severe psychotic depression, or as the sole form of treatment, but potentially, it is very scalable, and it is good to test its potential,’ he says.

The project to commercialise the game and do clinical testing of it is funded by Business Finland with a budget of just under a million euros. The next phase of the project will be launched at the beginning of 2021 and will continue through the summer of 2022. The team is now searching for an artist, a game designer and developer, and a programmer for additional support. Palva’s research group also was also awarded a research project funded by Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation and the Technology Industries of Finland Centennial Foundation. This project combines game- and neuroscience research to improve the understanding of how video games induce neuroplasticity and improve brain functioning and the budget is 500 000 euros.

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