A team of scientists at the University of Cambridge has developed a brain training program on the iPad designed to help patients suffering from schizophrenia improve their memory and their ability to live their lives independently.
As a long-term psychiatric condition, schizophrenia causes individuals to experience several mental health issues, including delusions, hallucinations and sudden behavioral changes.
While psychotic symptoms can be treated through the use of existing medications, schizophrenia patients still suffer from severe cognitive impairments, such as in their ability to remember information, that often leave them incapable of living normal lives.
There are no current drug treatments licensed to help improve cognitive functions of schizophrenia patients, but more and more evidence suggest that training and rehabilitation through computer-assisted programs can provide sufferers with the means to overcome some of the condition's debilitating symptoms and allow them to regain some daily functions.
In a study featured in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Cambridge researcher Barbara Sahakian and her colleagues at the university's psychiatry department developed a game on the iPad called Wizard aimed at enhancing the episodic memory of an individual.
The episodic memory is what allows people to remember details even after undertaking other activities for a long period. This includes remembering where a person parked his or her car in a multi-level car park after going on shopping for several hours. This aspect of memory recall is what is often affected first in schizophrenia patients.
Wizard is the product of a nine-month-long project between neuroscientists, psychologists, game developers and people diagnosed with schizophrenia. It was designed as a game to make it fun, engaging and easy to understand, while helping improve the user's episodic memory.
The memory-enhancing function of the game is included in its narrative which requires the user to choose his or her name and character. Player rewards are provided in-game as the user proceeds in Wizard's story. It also features other activities that are meant to give the person an idea of progression that is independent of the process of cognitive training.
Sahakian and her team asked 22 individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia to participant in either a control group or a cognitive training group. Patients that were assigned to cognitive training were asked to play a memory game for eight total hours spread across a period of four weeks, while those that were assigned to the control group were asked to continue their regular treatments.
Using the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB) PAL, the researchers tested the episodic memory of all of the study participants as well as their motivation and enjoyment level after the four week duration. They also tested the patients' score based on the scale of the Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) to measure psychological, social and occupational capabilities as adults.
The Cambridge scientists discovered that schizophrenia patients that played the Wizard memory game made considerably fewer mistakes in the tests compared to those of the control group. The cognitive training participants also required significantly fewer attempts in remembering the locations of various patterns on the CANTAB PAL exam, and their GAF scores were also higher than the people in the control group.
Cognitive training participants also indicated that they enjoyed playing Wizard, and that they were motivated to continue using the memory game during the eight-hour period. Sahakian and her team found that those schizophrenia patients who became motivated because of the game performed the best at it. This is crucial as the lack of motivation is one of the most common facets of the mental condition.
Cambridge's Wizard program has now been adapted by the developers of a well-known brain training app known as Peak in order to produce scientifically tested modules for cognitive training. The new app is included in Peak's app for the iOS, specifically designed to train the episodic and visual memory of an individual while helping them learn as well.