Brain Training Games May Reduce Teenagers’ Vulnerability to Depression and Anxiety

June 5, 2019

A study aimed to find out if cognitive training exercises that can boost attentional control and working memory could also influence emotional functioning.

NEWS BRIEF

A new study by researchers at Birkbeck University of London has found evidence that regularly practicing a tricky online memory game can improve mental wellbeing in teenagers. Compared to a control group, adolescents who trained their working memory using the game reported a significant reduction in depression and anxiety scores at the end of their training. Remarkably, symptom reduction was more pronounced one month later.

Prior research has shown that attention and emotion brain processes are closely interlinked, so this study aimed to find out if cognitive training exercises that can boost attentional control and working memory could also influence emotional functioning. Birkbeck’s Professor Nazanin Derakshan led the study, comparing symptoms of anxiety and depression in two groups of teenage boys and girls, after they undertook different types of cognitive-training tasks over four weeks.1

The teenagers were given a training regimen comprised of daily 30-minute exercises that involved memorizing a visual cue (the location of a green box on the PC screen) paired with a sound (the pronunciation of a letter). These pairings were presented in sequence, and the teenagers had to determine if new pairings matched the earlier ones. Critically, one group used an adaptive task, meaning the task got trickier as their performance improved, whilst the control group used a version that remained at the easiest level. Participants completed questionnaires assessing anxiety and depression before and directly after training and again one month later.

The findings, published in Developmental Science, found that adaptive training led to an 11% reduction in self-reported depression at the end of training and a 25% reduction at one-month follow-up. Depression scores in the control group were unchanged after training and had increased by 11% after one month. Anxiety ratings in the adaptive training group dropped by 13% at one-month follow-up, compared to a non-significant decrease (3.75%) in the control group. The adolescents participating in the study were not a clinically depressed or anxious group.

According to Professor Derakshan, “We have seen similar positive effects of cognitive training in adults, but this is the first study to show these training effects in typical adolescents. What is particularly promising is that decreases in depression and anxiety continued even after they finished the training, showing a consolidation of the effects. We need further research to explore this, but we suspect training may bring about sustained brain changes that help reduce rumination and worry via the attentional control improvements.”

Patricia Beloe, a PhD student at Birkbeck who conducted the study said, “We are interested in protective factors that prevent typical emotional vulnerabilities of adolescence from escalating into full-blown mental health problems. Our findings are evidence of causal links between working memory and emotional vulnerability in teenagers and demonstrate it may be possible to address vulnerability to anxiety and depression with easy-to-implement interventions that target cognitive factors.”

This article was originally published on 4/25/2019 and has since been updated.

References:

1. Beloe P, Derakshan N. Adaptive working memory training can reduce anxiety and depression vulnerability in adolescents. Dev Sci. 2019 Mar 29:e12831.  [Epub ahead of print]
 

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