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Using brain-training games to stave off depression in adolescents

Children of parents who suffer from depression may have an increased risk of developing the condition or other psychological problems, in part because the parents may pass down behavioral traits such as overacting negatively to emotional situations. Now Stanford psychology professor Ian Gotlib, PhD, and colleagues are studying whether interactive games and brain-scanning software can teach these at-risk adolescents to better control their emotions, and can potentially prevent depression.

Gotlib recently presented findings from two small studies at the annual meeting of the Society for Research in Psychopathology in Boston. His research is featured today in a New Scientist story:

In a pilot experiment, eight girls [whose mothers suffer from depression] used a neural feedback display to learn how to control activity in a network of interrelated brain regions that have been linked to depression – these include the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

The level of activity in this network was measured using a functional MRI scan and displayed to the girls in the form of a thermometer on a computer screen. The girls were shown sad or negative pictures that might ordinarily raise their "temperature", and tried to lower that "temperature" by adopting more sanguine mental states. They were then advised to try to recreate that mindset in their daily lives.

A control group unknowingly watched someone else's scan output instead of their own, so they didn't actually learn how to control their brain activity.

Another set of girls in the pilot experiment received their training through a simple computer game instead. In this game, a pair of faces appeared on a screen every few seconds: they would be either neutral and sad, or neutral and happy. Then a dot replaced one of the faces, and the "game" was to click on the dot. For the eight girls in the control group, the face replaced by the dot was selected at random, but for eight girls in the experimental group, the dot always replaced the more positive face in the pair. Over a week of playing this game daily, these girls were in effect being trained to avoid looking at the sad faces.

Results showed that both kinds of training notably reduced the girls' heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels and other stress-related responses to negative stimuli. Subjects in the control groups did not exhibit such improvement. The researchers plan to expand the number of participants in their study and compare the girls' long-term mental health with a cohort of 200 girls not included in the trial.

Previously: The link between teen depression and suicide, Study: Too much TV, computer could hurt kids’ mental health and Lack of sleep may be harmful to a teen’s well-being
Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

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