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Finnish researchers developing game that eases depression symptoms

Researchers hope that the game could become an integral tool for the cognitive exercises patients are encouraged to do between therapy sessions.


Despite feeling and looking like a modern action video game, a game is in development in Finland which could help in the treatment of depression when combined with drug and other therapies.

The game tasks the player with solving challenges in a fantasy city while its network of underlying features produces a therapeutic effect, alleviating the symptoms of depression and improving cognitive performance.

The idea stems from the finding that playing a perceptual video training game can improve the visual acuity of patients with amblyopia, or lazy eye.

“We noticed that the targeted video games make it possible to alleviate the symptoms of a brain disease that was thought to be permanent,” recounted professor Matias Palva from Aalto University, who is heading the research group.

An earlier version of the game was tested in a clinical study conducted by the psychiatry department of Helsinki University Hospital, the University of Helsinki and Mental Hub. It was shown that playing the game actively for eight weeks reduced depression symptoms and improved cognitive function.

The game looks and feels like a modern action game. Image: Aalto University

The improvements were not as marked as to those achieved with conventional therapies, but the research team will continue to develop and test the game to enhance its therapeutic effect. The game, it believes, could become an integral tool for the cognitive exercises patients are encouraged to do between therapy sessions.

“The number of people who suffer from milder symptoms of depression is two to threefold compared to those with diagnosable depressive syndromes,” said Erkki Isometsä, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Helsinki and chief physician in psychiatry at the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS).

“There is great demand for all cost-effective aids for these groups.”

Isometsä underlined that the game has its limitations: it is not suitable for the elderly, for anyone with severe psychotic depression or as the only form of treatment. “But potentially, it is very scalable, and it is good to test its potential,” he added.

Business Finland has granted the development and commercialisation project a budget of almost one million euros. The project has also received funding from Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation and the Technology Industries of Finland Centennial Foundation.

By: Aleksi Teivainen