The stigmatization of mental illness, especially in the United States, often mischaracterizes the impact and representation of these diseases. Most likely when you hear schizophrenia, you think of a raving, delusional individual wrapped in a straightjacket locked away in an asylum. Hallucinations and delusions are indeed psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia that manifest in extreme cases like how pop culture tends to depict the disease, but what most don’t realize is that schizophrenia more commonly has cognitive impairments for those diagnosed with it, leading to impairments in learning and memory.
While patients can be prescribed antipsychotics to treat and manage those more prevalent symptoms, no certified drugs exist yet to combat schizophrenia’s cognitive symptoms. That’s where Barbara Sahakian comes in. As a neuropsychologist at the University of Cambridge, Sahakian and her colleagues have developed a brain training app to help patients with schizophrenia repair their cognitive functions.
Called “Wizard,” the game incorporates memory tasks amidst a narrative in which players can create their own characters and traverse the world of the game. A recent study in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B showed the game had a significant impact on treating the cognitive impairments of patients with schizophrenia versus those that had not played the game.
Researchers tested 22 patients with schizophrenia, who were assigned to either a control group that continued their treatment as normal or a cognitive training group, which was exposed to Sahakian’s game for eight hours over a four-week period. People who played the game performed much better on the CANTAB memory test that assesses episode memory that is often stymied by schizophrenia. Additionally, patients in the cognitive training group scored significantly higher on the Global Assessment of Functioning scale, which measures psychological functioning. The game also addresses motivation issues that can develop in patients as well.
An app combating schizophrenia symptoms has far-reaching implications for how the disease is not only treated, but perceived. Because mental illness is so stigmatized, many forego treatment and choose not to enter into the healthcare system. Taking medicine out of the equation, so to speak, and replacing it with a game makes the trepidatious first step in seeking treatment much more manageable, approachable and accessible. A game also comes with none of the typical side effects you would expect from taking prescription medications and antipsychotics. At virtually no cost too, the wildly expensive treatment plans that many patients with schizophrenia grapple with would see a drastic reduction with Wizard being integrated into their treatment plan.
Sahakian’s game and app have been acquired by the brain training company Peak, and they have already redeveloped Wizard for wider use beyond treating schizophrenia symptoms. Available on iOS, Wizard could not only become the next must-have app addiction, but could also help revolutionize and de-stigmatize the treatment of a misunderstood and oft-ignored disease.