The idea that computerized brain training can aid cognition in schizophrenia is picking up steam.
Sophia Vinogradov, M.D. was interviewed at psychiatryonline.org: "I would like to argue that the brain is not immutably fixed, and that even in people with schizophrenia these neural systems show a high degree of plasticity and can change."
She is professor in residence and interim associate chief of staff for mental health at San Francisco VA Medical Center. She posits that such functions as attention or working memory or perception are closely tied to each other and always interacting.
Vinogradov presented at APA's 2011 Institute on Psychiatric Services in San Francisco promising research that indicates computerized games that train patients in specific tasks can effect multiple interacting brain systems, thus causing changes in global cognitive functioning. This gives new hope for cognitive remediation, a field long held back because while patients improved in the short term on various cognitive functions, the improvements were often not long-term and didn't improve cognition or quality of life.
Her suggestion is that the new emerging model counters that larger and more coordinated populations of neurons are distributed and always interacting. The idea is that intensive training of lower-level functions can prompt changes throughout the interactive, distributed neural networks of the brain. This would result in improvements in higher-level cognitive function that correlated to improved real-world functioning and quality of life.
In a study, 55 clinically stable schizophrenia subjects received 50 hours of computerized auditory training or a control condition using computer games. Participants who received active training improved significantly in global cognition, verbal working memory and verbal learning and memory.
Vinogradov presented evidence that the improved cognition from this kind of training was directly linked with increases in quality-of-life scores six months after training. Not only that participants in a study who engaged in computerized cognitive training, designed to improve auditory processing, saw not only significant cognitive gains but a significant increase in serum BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF, according to Vinogradov, might serve as a biomarker of cognitive improvement.
While much of the research was conducted with patients who have been ill for many years, she presented evidence that brain-training techniques might be useful for patients much earlier in their illness.
Leading professionals in the mental health field believe cognitive impairment is the true hallmark symptom of schizophrenia. It's good to see that effectively combating this disorganized brain functioning might be possible. The cognitive deficit syndrome is one possible reason that it's harder for some of us to function and hold jobs.
I will report back on this phenomenon when I hear about further research in the field aimed at improving cognition. For now, we cannot discount the latest news that this kind of computerized brain training holds promise.