childonlineComputer games could help in treating older people with depression who haven't responded to antidepressant drugs or other treatments for the disorder, according to a small-scale US study.

Researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College in New York found playing certain computer games was "just as effective" at reducing symptoms of depression as the 'gold standard' anti-depressant drug Lexapro (escitalopram) for 11 older patients.

The patients playing the computer games also achieved improved executive functions in four weeks, compared to the average of 12 weeks it takes for anti-depressants to effect the same neurological changes.

Executive functions are the thinking skills used in planning and organizing behavior, and their impairment has been linked to depression in elderly patients.

Study lead Prof Morimoto believes the findings suggest computerised therapy could also help treat people with other brain disorders.

"Depression is a biological illness of the brain, no different from any other illness, and it necessitates treatment," said Prof Morimoto. "Our findings suggest that the health and functioning of brain circuits responsible for executive functions are important for recovery from depression. Only roughly one-third of depressed elderly patients get fully well with antidepressant drugs so our study points at the potential for computerised therapy which could be used by itself or in conjunction with antidepressant drugs."

Further reading: Video games can aid child development, study suggests

A previous study from Cornell discovered that people who aren't helped by antidepressants also tend to have impairment of their executive functions. In fact, patients who suffer from executive dysfunction are about half as likely to respond to antidepressants.

As such, the researchers wanted to develop a therapy to exercise and potentially improve people's executive functions. They used computer games, which prior research suggested may help strengthen mental functions such as memory.

The researchers developed one computer game that involved balls moving on a video screen; patients had to press a button when the balls changed color. This game helped test attention and accuracy. Another game involved rearranging multiple word lists into categories, which helped test speed and accuracy. Both games increased in difficulty over time based on how well people did.

The scientists tested the games on participants ages 60 to 89 who had major depression and failed to show improvement with antidepressant drugs, including escitalopram. The participants engaged in the computer activities for 30 hours over the course of four weeks.

Prof Morimoto concluded that while this was a very small preliminary study, and more research is need, this computerised approach "can be extended to other mental health conditions by reprogramming it to target the brain circuits found impaired in these disorders".

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