Virtual Reality Game Research Uncovers Clues About Depression

Very interesting, if only as a diagnostic tool so far – they don’t have a therapeutic application of this yet.  But the research does suggest there’s a lot more to be discovered out there beyond the horizon of the research we’ve done yet.  And a reliable diagnostic tool may imply or suggest new therapies – as well as be useful for testing the effectiveness of other therapies.  Here’s a link to the CBC news story:

3-D video game uncovers brain dysfunction: Scientists

Clinically depressed people’s performance in a 3-D video game suggests a part of their brain responsible for spatial memory does not function correctly, U.S. researchers have found.

Spatial memory tells the brain where objects are located and their orientation.

Scientists at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health investigating the link between depression and the hippocampus — the centre of memory — found clinically depressed individuals asked to navigate a video game’s 3-D virtual reality environment did poorly when compared to mentally healthy individuals.

The results of the study, led by NIMH researcher Neda Gould and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, indicate the hippocampus does not work normally in a depressed person’s brain.

Earlier studies have shown the hippocampus was smaller in depressed people than those without a mood disorder, and that depressed people have memory problems.

The new study, which looked at 30 depressed patients and 19 people without a mood disorder, found the 3-D game was a better way to measure the performance of test subjects than more traditional means.

The scientists had previously given the same people a two-dimensional memory test that is normally used in studies of this kind. They found that when they asked subjects to remember the location of objects on a computer screen, the two-dimensional test couldn’t show the differences in spatial memory that were captured by the 3-D video game.

Gould said the reason for this is likely that to play the 3-D game, people must use parts of their hippocampus that are not engaged by the two-dimensional test.

The results suggest the game is a superior tool to provide “a consistent, sensitive measure of cognitive deficits in patients with affective disorders,” Gould wrote in the study.

The game they used was developed by scientists at the University College of London in England.

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5 thoughts on “Virtual Reality Game Research Uncovers Clues About Depression

  1. J.T. Christopher says:

    What game?!? This is great news, considering what you said about the non-differentiating two-dimensional “test”. Where can we play it and does it have awful music. Thanls….

  2. theschwartz says:

    The full article in the Journal is only available yet if you have a subscription. More info might be found by Googling details from the article above, or the names or info from the article abstract, which I’ll paste here. If you find more details, please do add them as a comment here. Thanks!

    Performance on a Virtual Reality Spatial Memory Navigation Task in Depressed Patients
    Neda F. Gould, B.A., M. Kathleen Holmes, B.S., Bryan D. Fantie, Ph.D., David A. Luckenbaugh, M.A., Daniel S. Pine, M.D., Todd D. Gould, M.D., Neil Burgess, Ph.D., Husseini K. Manji, M.D. and Carlos A. Zarate Jr., , M.D.

    OBJECTIVE: Findings on spatial memory in depression have been inconsistent. A navigation task based on virtual reality may provide a more sensitive and consistent measure of the hippocampal-related spatial memory deficits associated with depression. METHOD: Performance on a novel virtual reality navigation task and a traditional measure of spatial memory was assessed in 30 depressed patients (unipolar and bipolar) and 19 normal comparison subjects. RESULTS: Depressed patients performed significantly worse than comparison subjects on the virtual reality task, as assessed by the number of locations found in the virtual town. Between-group differences were not detected on the traditional measure. The navigation task showed high test-retest reliability. CONCLUSIONS: Depressed patients performed worse than healthy subjects on a novel spatial memory task. Virtual reality navigation may provide a consistent, sensitive measure of cognitive deficits in patients with affective disorders, representing a mechanism to study a putative endophenotype for hippocampal function.

  3. Greenspan4eva says:

    Maybe they just don’t care where things are in 3 space. “Where did I leave the Ork Blade of Justice? …ehhh no me importa.”

  4. Cassie says:

    How many of the subjects were women and how many were men? Since we know that men on average score higher than women on spatial tests and women have almost double the incidence of depression did he just invent a test that can discriminate between sad women and insensitive men?

    I am guessing that if you tease out gender the results are not quite as dramatic. Depression also comes and goes (alone or with treatment) so do your scores go up when you aren’t depressed? What about when somone is treated? How do you explain recovery when I doubt that the size of someones hippocampus changes with treatment.

  5. theschwartz says:

    Very good questions Cassie – hope they’re thinking of them too. On the point about gender, I’d expect them to already have handled that when selecting the study subjects – but it’d be nice to see the real data and know. Any Journal subscribers able to answer the questions?

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