Computer Games May be the Best Medicine


By Colleen Salvatore

Treating Depression in Elderly Patients

Can you imagine a doctor recommending that your grandparent play computer games to treat depression rather than prescribing medication? A new study suggests that computer games may prove to be the best medicine for geriatric depression patients.

Mood-lifting Alternative to Medication

Over 6.5 million Americans over 65 suffer from clinical depression. Conventional treatment has centered on prescription antidepressants, which often have little or no effect or cause negative side effects in elderly patients. In fact, only one third of elderly patients feel better with antidepressants.

Approximately 40 percent of elderly patients with depression also suffer from deterioration of executive function which governs memory, reasoning, problem solving, planning and organizing. Because these patients are only half as likely to respond to antidepressants, Sarah Shizuko Morimoto, a neuropsychologist researcher from Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, theorized that improving executive function could also aid geriatric depression.

Morimoto asked a group of 11 patients aged 60 to 89 who had previously shown no improvement with antidepressants, to play computer games for 30 hours over a four-week period. In one game, patients pressed a button whenever bouncing balls on the screen changed colors to test reaction speed and accuracy. In another game, patients rearranged several word lists into various categories to test their attention and accuracy. The level of difficulty for both games increased with time and player ability.

Results were compared to 33 patients in a separate study treated with the antidepressant escitalopram and indicated an equal level of effectiveness in a shorter timeframe.

According Morimoto, "Our findings suggest that the health and functioning of the brain circuits responsible for executive function are important for the recovery from depression. This computer therapy could be used by itself or in conjunction with antidepressant drugs. It could be extended to other mental disorders by reprogramming it to target the brain circuits found impaired in these disorders."

Classroom Discussion

  • What impact do computer games have on teens? Does it differ from that of the elderly?
  • Research anatomy of the human brain. Which part control executive function? Which other brain regions might have a role in depression?