UK video game calms hallucinations in schizophrenia patients

Researchers from King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience and the University of Roehampton in London have found a way to suppress verbal hallucinations in individuals with schizophrenia through video games. 

According to the study recently published in Translational Psychiatry, 12 participants with schizophrenia who regularly experienced auditory verbal hallucinations (AVH) were trained to control a part of the brain sensitive to speech and human voices through correctly landing a rocket in a video game.  

Study participants learned how to down regulate the superior temporal gyrus region of the brain using real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging neurofeedback (rtfMRI-NF). 

According to the researchers, rtfMRI-NF allows individuals to self-regulate and monitor their own brain activity, making participants' study strategies applicable to approaching everyday life.  

"Real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging neurofeedback (rtfMRI-NF) experiments could make a major contribution to our understanding of the brain regions and networks involved in AVH and, crucially, could enable us to test if people with schizophrenia can be trained to alter activity and connectivity in these networks," said lead author of the study Natasza Orlov, PhD, from King's College London and the University of Roehampton. 

Researchers asked the 12 participants to play a rocket video game while inside an MRI machine. While trying to control their schizophrenic symptoms, participants had to move the computerized rocket in the game through achieving different mental strategies. After four rounds in the MRI scanner over a two-week period, participants were able to suppress the external voices they heard that were brought on by schizophrenia.  

Study findings suggest that patients with AVH have the ability to alter activity and connectivity in speech and language regions and raise the possibility that rtfMRI-NF training could present a novel therapeutic intervention in schizophrenia," according to Orlov. 

Researchers found connectivity between the left superior temporal gyrus, the left inferior prefrontal gyrus and the inferior parietal gyrus regions in the brains of all study participants, according to study results. This connectivity ultimately resulted in increased functional connectivity between speech, motor and perception function and a reduction in hallucinations. The technique may also help schizophrenic patients that are unresponsive to medication, according to the researchers. 

"While this is preliminary data, it's particularly promising that patients were able to control their brain activity even without the MRI scanning, suggesting that this may be a strategy that people, who have followed the MRI neuro-feedback training protocol, can benefit from at home," said Sukhi Shergill, PhD, from King's College London and a consultant psychiatrist at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, in a BBC article.