A video game developer at a lab at the University of Utah received a grant of $7.5 million from the National Mental Health Institute to conduct clinical trials for its further development. The game is called Neurogrow and is designed to treat older adults with depression. Neurogrow lets players take care of a virtual garden with changing circumstances. The gameplay aims to strengthen circuits in the front of the brain in older adults who suffer from depression. Neurogrow is developed by the Therapeutic Games and Apps Lab at the University of Utah based on Dr. Sarah Shizuko Morimoto’s research. Sarah is an associate professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences. Her team received the grant in April and began the clinical trials in August. According to Sarah, receiving the grant marked the “crowning achievement” of her career.
Roger Altizer, director of digital medicine at the Center for Medical Innovation, says that they are doing work of medicine that “just happens to be with software instead of with pills.” Morimoto has spent more than a decade exploring how video games can rebuild damaged circuits in the frontal lobe that may block off the effectiveness of antidepressant medication. She said that the recovery mechanism in the brain that helps people overcome depression can erode with aging. She compared the brain circuits to a phone line: It doesn’t matter how much signal boosting happens at either end of a phone call if the line is cut. Although antidepressants can help improve one’s mood, the medication would be ineffective unless the cognitive infrastructure is repaired.
Morimoto said that an early clinical trial showed that between 60% to 70% of patients who hadn’t previously responded to medication reported that the game provided some relief before she came to the University. Morimoto ran another trial against a generally stimulating computer program and found that 60% to 70% of patients reported a 50% reduction in their depression symptoms.