Credit: Public Domain.

Credit: Public Domain.

Living with schizophrenia can be a real struggle. Treating the mental disorder is no piece of cake either, especially when 50% of schizophrenia patients don’t actually believe they are sick (it’s one of the symptoms). This is why a new study may be particularly important in this context.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego found that targeted cognitive training (TCT) improved auditory and verbal outcomes among the most difficult of schizophrenia patients. Previously, this kind of therapy was shown to be effective in mild to moderate forms of schizophrenia, but it was unclear whether the most severe cases would benefit from the therapy.

TCT uses sophisticated brain grames and other interactive exercises on a computer or virtual reality simulation in order to target specific neural pathways, such as memory, learning, and auditory-based senses.

“Chronic, treatment-refractory patients mandated to locked residential care facilities make up just a small subgroup of persons with schizophrenia, but they consume a disproportionately large share of mental health care resources,” Gregory A. Light, professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine, said in a statement. “Finding an effective therapy for them is critical.”

The researchers recruited 46 patients with acute symptoms of schizophrenia — the kind that is very difficult to treat because they often don’t respond to therapy and do not cooperate with caretakers. The participants were randomized to either standard psychiatric treatment or standard treatment plus TCT.

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Those who completed three months of TCT improved their verbal learning and auditory perception scores, and had fewer episodes of auditory hallucinations.

“These findings indicate that even highly symptomatic, functionally
disabled patients with chronic illness benefit from this emerging treatment.,” the authors wrote in the journal Schizophrenia Research

Most severe cases of schizophrenia involved auditory hallucinations — internal words or noises that have no real origin in the outside world and are perceived to be separate from the person’s mental processes. The voice — sometimes multiple voices — sound like whispering or murmuring and may seem angry or urgent. Often, the voices are demanding of the hallucinating person.

“Our results suggest that chronically ill, highly disabled patients can benefit from TCT,” said Light. “That contradicts current assumptions.”

Computers: the therapists of the future for mental disorders

There has been much progress in the past two decades as far as understanding schizophrenia goes. However, treatment outcomes and standard therapy targetting the disorder have only improved marginally because schizophrenia is extremely complex and challenging to treat.

Research such as this shows that cognitive training may soon become an important part of schizophrenia treatment. Therapists, such as those you can find on BetterHelp, may want to look closely into this.

Previously, other studies showed that playing a simple computer game relaxed the part of the brain responsible for verbal communication, thus reducing hallucinations. Another study showed that voices could be silenced when schizophrenic patients interacted with an ‘avatar’ — a digital rendition of the imaginary person responsible for the auditory hallucinations.

“We’re somewhere between the Wild West and golden age of cognitive training for schizophrenia patients. There is much still to be learned and done,” Light said.  “We need to do a lot more research.”