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Fantasy Computer Game Heals Adolescents' Depression

Update Date: Apr 21, 2012 12:24 AM EDT

Specialized fantasy computer therapy is just as effective as face-to-face counseling with a clinician for adolescents with depression, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Auckland, New Zealand created a novel computerized cognitive behavioral therapy called SPARX - an interactive 3D fantasy game, which contains 7 modules designed to be completed over a 4 to 7 week period. In the game, a single user must undergo a series of challenges to restore balance in a virtual world that has become overrun by GNATS (Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts).

The scientists then conducted a randomized controlled trial involving 187 adolescents aged 12 to 19 years with mild to moderate depression in 24 primary healthcare sites across New Zealand. One group played SPARX over a four to seven week period and the other group completed one-to-one counseling with trained clinicians.

Subjects received follow-up for 3 months. The authors based their results on several commonly used mental health and quality of life scales.

The team found that SPARX reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety by at least a third, making it just as effective as standard treatment. Furthermore, 31 (44%) out of the 69 participants who completed at least 4 homework modules in the SPARX group completely recovered, compared with only 26% (19/83) assigned to standard treatment.

Although both groups reported high satisfaction, 95% (76/80) participants assigned to SPARX said the program would appeal to other teenagers and 81% (64/80) said they would recommend it to friends.

The scientists conclude that SPARX is an "effective resource for help seeking adolescents with depression at primary healthcare sites. Use of the program resulted in a clinically significant reduction in depression, anxiety, and hopelessness and an improvement in quality of life."

The authors suggested a computer game-based treatment could be cost effective and could increase access to treatment, noting that SPARX is able to be played at home. Also, the game could be a choice for adolescents who are hesitant to seek conventional treatment.

The study was published online on British Medical Journal on Thursday.

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