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A video game designed to treat depression, and it works

(Photo by ryan melaugh, CC Images)
LISTEN: A video game that treats depression. Yes, really.

Telling someone who’s seeking help for depression to play video games sounds counterintuitive. But one particular video game, being studied by researchers, is proving effective at treating depression.

The therapeutic game is called “Project: Evo” and it can be played on a tablet or smart phone.

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Patricia Arean, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, has been involved in two studies regarding the video game. The first involved 600 depressed participants, and compared Project: Evo to a couple of other depression apps. The second study compared Project: Evo to traditional talk therapy.

“What we found is that the video game was as effective as the talk therapy,” Arean said. “We think the reason why the video game was effective is because it was specifically exercising a part of the brain that we think is associated with depression.”

We’ll get to the brain chemistry stuff later. But back to the game — it was originally designed to help people with ADD and helps people who suffer from a particular type of depression. People who suffer from symptoms  such as …

“Not having a lot of motivation, feeling like it’s hard to accomplish tasks, feeling very hopeless, feeling very distracted, like they can’t follow a conversation, they find themselves ruminating on bad things in the past,” Arean said.

Project: EVO vs. depression

The game is about an alien who travels from world-to-world with the goal of obtaining certain specimens.

“The game gets progressively harder,” Arean said. “We do that specifically because what we’re trying to do is help people improve their concentration, their focus, not be distracted by information that is not going to be helpful to reaching their goal.”

The mechanics of the game can translate into everyday life.

“When you’re depressed it becomes very hard for people to meet their goals,” Arean said. “They get very distracted by what we call internal information. They feel like maybe they’re not going to be successful at reaching their goal. If they go out and socialize they’re going to have a bad time. If they do go out and socialize, they might be paying more attention to who’s not talking to me, who didn’t laugh at my joke. What we’re finding is, they have a much easier time concentrating. They feel more motivated to do positive things for themselves. When they are engaged, in even difficult tasks, they feel more successful.”

What’s fascinating is that the subject matter of the video game has nothing to do with mental health. This is more about fixing brain function in people who suffer from this particular flavor of depression.

“It seems to be due to poor communication between two parts of the brain,” Arean said. “The prefrontal cortex makes decisions and then there’s another part of the brain called the anterior cingulate that pays attention to danger in the environment. What happens with depression is that part of the brain, the anterior cingulate, starts to become noisy and pays a little too much attention to danger. It starts to flood the prefrontal cortex with all of this negative information, like, ‘Don’t do that! That person didn’t laugh at your joke. Oh my god, you’re failing!’ So what happens is the prefrontal cortex gets kind of exhausted. It’s dealing with all of this loud information. So they stop communicating. So what we’re doing with the game is basically strengthening the connection between those two parts of the brain.”

People in the studies were told to play the game every day for 20 minutes, but the studies found that people who played four times a week still felt better and less depressed. Seniors especially enjoyed playing the game.

Arean said about 80 percent of participants felt better as a result of playing the game.

The game is a new, very thoughtful approach to mental health. Another game is currently being tested to relieve schizophrenia symptoms, and it’s working. Playing a game to fix the brain, instead of masking symptoms with drugs, would mean no harsh side effects and an actual solution rather than a band-aid.

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