Health Check: Video game for bipolar disorder

Researchers at Bradley Hospital are developing a video game for the treatment of bipolar disorder.

Researchers at Bradley Hospital in East Providence think they may be on to a potential breakthrough in the treatment of bipolar disorder in children: a video game.

The video game is the idea of Dr. Daniel Dickstein, director of the Pediatric Mood, Imaging and Neurodevelopment Program at Bradley Hospital.

"There is a real need for a new treatment, something that's out of the box," Dickstein said.

That's because in children with bipolar disorder, the impairment can be significant.

"Despite our best medications and therapeutic treatments, more than a third of these kids will try to kill themselves at least once, unfortunately. More than half to three-quarters will be hospitalized at least once if not multiple times, and so there is a real need for a new treatment," Dickstein said.

Dickstein is hoping a video game, developed with the help of a computer scientist at Brown University, will be that treatment.

"The first part had to do with can we build a cool game? Can we get kids to play the game and see what their pattern of play would be? And also, do they like it?" Dickstein said.

Feedback from children with bipolar disorder helped them make improvements, so in the first phase of the study, a dozen young people with bipolar disorder gave it a try. Their brains were scanned before and after the eight week trial.

"So coming to the lab playing the game twice a week for eight weeks resulted in their brains, after treatment, looking more like what you'd see in a healthy kid who didn't have bipolar disorder," Dickstein said.

The game in that first trial increased in difficulty.

"There are these decision collisions. They have to find out which object is mostly worth points and stick with it. If the object that mostly won you points starts to lose, you should switch," Dickstein said.

It's all about adaptation. I tried a more difficult game that involved little gems that got you extra points. And now Dickstein and his team are recruiting for the second phase of this research.

"Phase two is all about, can we see the positive brain changes? Is it specific to the skill building -- the increasingly hard game -- or is it a non-specific effect of being in a research study? And does it result in improved symptoms? And if it could do all those things, we can potentially have a new non-medication treatment that can be part of the treatment for bipolar disorder for kids," Dickstein said.

Bradley Hospital is hoping to recruit 40 children between the ages of 7 and 17 over the next two-and-a-half years to take part in this landmark study that's being funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

For this eight-week study, half of the children will be randomized to the skill building games and the others will be kept at the baseline level.

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