Schizophrenia, a dramatic and debilitating mental illness, most recently is defined as a decline in brain functioning over time. While those without schizophrenia are generally able to filter sounds that are not pertinent to their lives (such as a siren in the distance), those with schizophrenia are unable to ignore them.
Dr. Sophia Vinogradov, a psychiatrist at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, explains how it might feel to be schizophrenic: "They are walking down the street trying to have a conversation and their brain is being flooded with the sound of the door slamming, the airplane going overhead ... [Their brain] tried to make sense of it so that the person can go about with their life. And there's some evidence to suggest that that's what gives rise to delusional ideas, to paranoia, to hallucinatory activity."
Vinogradov's explanation of the mental illness represents a dramatic change in thinking from earlier days, when schizophrenia was treated by locking a patient in a padded cell, or with a frontal lobotomy. Now, researchers are more interested in helping the individual patient think more clearly.
NPR's Amy Standen reports:
...Vinogradov is conducting a study to see whether the brain can be, essentially, retaught. It uses computer games designed to train people with schizophrenia to tune out distractions and focus on simple instructions.
The idea isn't that video games would replace antipsychotic drugs, at least not for everyone. Vinogradov says there are many people whose voices or delusions are so destructive, so violent, that they need to be turned off. Medication is still the best way to do that.
But for another group of people, these kinds of approaches might let doctors focus on a different set of questions, says Vinogradov. "Is this person able to have the kind of life they want? Are they able to have friends, people they love who can love them back? Are they able to keep food and shelter?"
Voices and beliefs may not be what are getting in the way of that. Simpler problems like memory and focus may be the bigger obstacles to a good quality of life.
The concept of cognitive training for schizophrenic patients is not new. In fact, a review of similar studies found that everyday functioning, cognitive performance and symptoms have all been improved by computer-assisted and noncomputerized interventions.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, schizophrenia affects around 2.4 million adults in the United States.