Brain games seek to treat schizophrenia

  • Article by: Wire services
  • Updated: February 23, 2013 - 4:01 PM
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Ten-year-old Jasir Robinson ate a salad during lunch at William H. Ziegler Elementary School in Philadelphia last November.

Believing that brains can be trained through the use of specialized computer programs, researchers are focusing on helping people with schizophrenia, which can cause them to hear imagined voices or believe that others are controlling or plotting against them.

There are medications for the disorder, but they have severe side effects and don’t get rid of all symptoms; many people will not stick with the drugs. A California company, Posit Science, is developing a computer game that it hopes will become the first to earn approval from the Food and Drug Administration for treating schizophrenia.

The idea comes from Michael Merzenich, an emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco and a co-founder of Posit Science. Merzenich is a co-inventor of cochlear implants and one of the pioneers of the theory of neuroplasticity, which asserts that the brain continues to develop throughout a lifetime.

Treating schizophrenia with brain training is based on the theory that the confusion and fear the disease creates may occur because the brain’s expectations about what will happen do not match up with what actually happens. That disconnect might be traced to a problem with verbal and auditory processing of information, something that brain training targets.

An advantage of using schizophrenia for brain-training research lies in the severity of the disease. As a result, small gains achieved via the software can be of statistical significance. The company hopes that once such gains can be shown with schizophrenia, similar training can be tested for other conditions, such as dementia and even among healthy individuals, said Henry Mahncke, chief executive of Posit Science.

Clinical trials aimed at FDA approval are being conducted at a dozen sites in collaboration with the Schizophrenia Trials Network, a group of university-based researchers. The trials will involve 150 participants and finish next year.

Sophia Vinogradov, a psychiatry professor at the University of California at San Francisco, said, “Computer programs are especially suitable for targeting a disease like schizophrenia, because it’s in the teens when most of the affected are confronted with the disease — and in that age, they are particularly receptive to the games.”

She said results of her studies show that “cognition improves in schizophrenia patients. … Something that has not been shown with any other kind of intervention.” She said brain imaging suggests that brain-activation patterns become more efficient and normal.

Characterizing the challenge, she said, “We are like at the beginning of vaccination research: We have yet to figure out which dosages to use, which parameters to measure.”

kids are eating fewer calories

The intake of calories by American children and adolescents has dropped slightly over the past decade, the first decline in more than 40 years. A decrease in sugar consumption appears to be driving the trend.

For boys, calorie consumption declined by about 7 percent to 2,100 calories a day from 1999 through 2010. For girls, it dropped by 4 percent to 1,755 calories a day. “To reverse the current prevalence of obesity, these numbers have to be a lot bigger,” said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “But they are trending in the right direction and that’s good news.”

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