My job, you'll be surprised to hear, involves an awful lot of thinking about videogames. I think about them as toys, as pieces of art, as arenas for competition and, if I'm feeling pretentious, as tools for expanding my mind. What I don't often get to do is think about them as part of a medical treatment.
In a small study, researchers have found that schizophrenia patients can learn to control the part of their brain linked to verbal hallucinations by playing a videogame. While inside an MRI scanner, the participants were shown a rocket that responded to changes in the speech sensitive region of their brain. Almost all of the 12 participants managed to safely land the rocket by employing their own mental strategies, using feedback from the game to manage their verbal hallucinations.
The study was conducted by researchers at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience and the University of Roehampton.
The technique they used is an example of neurofeedback, which is where patients are shown positive or negative feedback that corresponds to their brainwaves. The participants weren't given specific instructions about how to control the rocket, but told to develop their own mental strategies. After four sessions, they were able to reduce the neural activity in the speech sensitive region of their brains without using the game.
All of the participants suffer from threatening verbal hallucinations on a daily basis, and hadn't been helped by medication. The study wasn't without its limits, but this was a pilot study and the researchers involved acknowledge the need for further research. Dr Natasza Orlov, of King's College, commented that "although the study sample size is small and we lacked a control group, these results are promising." She also said "we are now planning to conduct a randomised controlled study to test this technique in a larger sample."
Professor Paul Allen, from the University of Roehampton, added that "these are still early days in our research, however, patients who took part in the pilot study have told us that the training has helped them to calm their external voices down, so that they were able to internalise them more."
This is the first time a neurofeedback technique has been used to treat schizophrenia and verbal hallucinations, which could help the 70% of schizophrenia sufferers that hear voices. The NHS has a detailed break down of the study's methodology, and the research paper can be found here.
The study was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.