Brain Games Strengthen Areas of the Brain Associated with Mental Illness
Brain games have been found to strengthen areas of the brain associated with mental illness, but do not necessarily prevent them, according to new research funded by Australian Rotary Health (ARH).
Dr Louise Mewton from the University of New South Wales was awarded an ARH Postdoctoral Fellowship from 2015-2018 to investigate whether brain training could prevent mental illness in adolescents.
The idea came from the knowledge that certain areas of the brain (particularly frontal areas) are associated with an increased risk of developing a mental illness.
“We wanted to see whether strengthening these frontal areas of the brain using online ‘brain games’ reduces the risk of developing a mental illness in young people,” Dr Mewton said.
“Internationally, this was the first study that included enough participants to answer this question properly. No other study has been conducted like this in Australia.”
228 young people aged 16-24 were involved in the study, with half of them completing a brain training program that focused on the frontal areas of the brain, and the other half completing a brain training program that strengthened other parts of the brain not associated with mental illness. Before and after the intervention, participants were asked to complete a questionnaire.
“We found that brain games are capable of strengthening areas of the brain that have been associated with mental illness. These same areas of the brain have also been associated with our ability to plan, judge and strategise.”
Although while these areas of the brain were strengthened, this did not lead to improvements in mental health, alcohol use, or day-to-day-functioning.
“Smaller studies have suggested that brain games lead to improvements in mental health among young people. However, our study was much larger and conducted more carefully,” Dr Mewton said.
“While we did not find that brain games are an effective stand-alone strategy for preventing mental illness, our results are exciting because they indicate that they may be a useful accompaniment for other effective strategies that involve a lot of mental resources.”
Dr Mewton believes further research should focus on whether brain games can be used together with other prevention strategies to boost their effectiveness in young people who might be experiencing cognitive difficulties.
This research is currently under review for publication in Behaviour Research and Therapy.
Dr Mewton is currently working on her project ‘The long term effectiveness of a combined prevention model for anxiety, depression and substance use in adolescents’, with a Mental Health Research Grant from Australian Rotary Health. More information here.
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