In an innovative pilot, researchers have shown that using a computer game can help patients relax the part of the brain responsible for verbal communication, thus reducing hallucinations.

Participants had to land a rocket by controlling their brain. Credits: King’s College London.

The study involved 12 patients, all of which had near-daily hallucinatory events. They were asked to play a simple computer game while their brains were hooked to an fMRI focusing on an area called the auditory cortex, which is sensitive to speech and human voices.

The patients were able to monitor their own activity in the auditory cortex and in turn, this activity was represented by a computerized space rocket. They were instructed to safely land the rocket but were not given any additional instructions. Instead, they had to come up with their own strategies.

Essentially, through the game, they were learning to control their own symptoms. Dr. Natasza Orlov, from King’s College London, lead author of the study, said:

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“The patients know when the voices are about to start – they can feel it, so we want them to immediately put this aid into effect to lessen them, or stop the voices completely.”

The auditory cortex (in yellow). Credits: King’s College London.

After four sessions, patients were able to handle the symptoms much better. The hallucinatory voices had become much more internalized, which means that they were more manageable and less stressful. Patients were also able to take the strategies they developed for the study and bring them back to their day to day life. In other words, the patients gained a long-term ability to control their brains and significantly reduce the impact of schizophrenic hallucinations.

Corresponding author Paul Allen added:

“The results of this pilot are astonishing as almost everyone in the patient group was able to control the space rocket, successfully bringing the rocket in the game back down to the ground. What this means is that by using this technique, patients learnt to control brain activity in the area of the brain that responds to voices – an area we know is hyperactive in people whom experience auditory verbal hallucinations.”

It isn’t the first study to conclude something like this. In November last year, a study found that people also gained similar abilities by confronting an avatar on a computer screen. Two years ago, a different review also reported that computer games can be used to improve cognitive function in schizophrenia patients.

The main downside of this study is its small sample size. Researchers plan on confirming the findings in a much broader study.

“Although the study sample size is small and we lacked a control group, these results are promising. We are now planning to conduct a randomised controlled study to test this technique in a larger sample,” Orlov concluded.

Journal Reference: Natasza D. Orlov et al. Real-time fMRI neurofeedback to down-regulate superior temporal gyrus activity in patients with schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations: a proof-of-concept study.