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University of Utah health scientists say certain video games improve mental health in older adults

Laurie Featherstone plays a video game that scientists say can help improve mental health. (Meghan Thackrey, KSL-TV)



SALT LAKE CITY — Playing video games might look like a fun way to spend an afternoon. "They get addicting," said Laurie Featherstone, age 60, who lives in Millcreek.

But it can also be so much more.

Games are helping Featherstone treat her depression. "I thought, 'I don't have anything really to live for,'" she said. Featherstone faced her second severe case a few years ago. This time, antidepressants didn't work. "I felt like it was controlling my life. It ended up being quite devastating," she said.

"When you go to someone like me and say, 'I'm depressed,' you expect me to say, 'Well, you should take some medicine or you should go to therapy.' So we're really proposing a third, very odd option to patients," said Shizuko Morimoto, a University of Utah population health sciences professor.

Morimoto, a neuroscientist, treated Featherstone with video games designed to target the cognitive control center of the brain which malfunctions in depressed patients.

In three clinical trials, they've found the games reduced isolation and depression in patients ages 60-85. Now, scientists hope to prove it on a larger scale with a $7.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Roger Altizer, director of the GApp Lab at the U., designed them. "From the colors, to the images, to the plants that are in it, everything in it is designed to be interesting and palatable to older adults," he said.

One is a word game; the other, a gardening game. "Flowers are growing and you're tapping on watering buckets and you're shooing away bugs and you're looking at the weather," he said.

But there's much more going on behind the colorful flowers. The better you get at the game the harder it becomes. It also charts your progress, giving vital feedback and improving care.

Featherstone said it's an intense workout. "It felt like I'd gone out and ran you know, a 5K race and but with my brain," she said.

Morimoto said, "What we start to see about two weeks in is patients starting to do something a little different or think about something a little different."

That shift in thinking worked for Featherstone. "Oh, definitely. Yeah, even my kids, and my husband said that they noticed a difference," she said. "It's helping me not to feel stagnant in my brain, you know, or my emotions."

They're tapping into a digital world of treatment to treat mental illness.

Scientists say they're at the forefront of discovering what video games can treat. Soon, they'll be a normal part of health care.

In the next five years, they expect to see prescription medical games and apps to treat many types of mental illnesses.

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Heather Simonsen

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