Video Gaming May Reduce Depression in Older Adults

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UConn School of Medicine researchers are testing the power of computerized video gaming to improve late-life depression in older adults and they are already seeing early-promising results.

“We have successfully begun investigating the potential benefits of video games for several older adults with depression,” says Dr. Kevin Manning, the study’s lead investigator and a UConn Center on Aging neuropsychologist assisting patients with care and diagnosis of cognitive or mood issues that may arise.

Dr. Kevin Manning (UConn Health/Tina Encarnacion).

Manning and his colleagues are studying gaming in older adults who continue to show symptoms of depression despite being on antidepressants. “With only gaming added to their treatment plan, and no other changes, these study subjects have already experienced a statistically significant reduction in their depression over just six weeks.”

Manning adds: “At the UConn Center on Aging our goal is preserving and improving our patients’ quality of life in every way we can. Cognitive stimulation through computerized video games might be a new alternative way to treat depression in older adults and an additional way for us to help our older patients improve their cognitive fitness.”

As assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UConn School of Medicine, Manning’s research focuses on understanding links between cognitive changes in older adults and depression.

This August, he was awarded a five-year NIH grant through its young faculty career-development program to understand whether intensive computerized brain training can improve mood, cognition, and actual brain activation in older adults with depression.

The clinical trial study is using the enrolled patients’ clinical data, survey responses, and the latest 3T functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to track their and their brain’s response to gaming. An additional goal of this work is to understand whether any brain changes on MRI imaging may help researchers determine if a patient might be more likely to experience future depression relapses or cognitive decline.

According to Manning, in addition to the short-term benefits, his team also plans to examine the long-term effects of gaming on older adults annually.

“It would be really impressive if we see a delay in the onset of cognitive decline and long-term improvement in the treatment group at one-year,” says Manning. Also, if proven to improve cognition and mood, Manning believes his team’s video game findings might be generalized to other cognitively stimulating activities such as brain game challenges, word puzzles, and learning a new language or instrument.

Depression in older adults places them at higher risk for cognitive weakness and even developing dementia later in life. Cognitive weaknesses, or mild cognitive impairments, may start with one’s daily executive function being impacted, such as multi-tasking, organization, and planning. Trouble with these daily tasks are commonly linked to future dementia development.

Decreases in one’s executive functions alone says Manning may promote the onset of depressive symptoms and lead to greater functional impairment (for example: driving difficulties and trouble managing one’s medications). However, standard care with antidepressants and psychotherapy, while effective for managing mood symptoms, do not consistently improve executive function.

Manning believes that computerized gaming may be a promising interventional therapy to directly target and improve older patients’ impaired executive functioning.

Mentors of Manning’s for this research project include UConn School of Medicine’s Dr. David Steffens, Dr. Lihong Wang, and Dr. Mark Litt, as well as, the University of Utah’s Dr. Shizuko Morimoto.

The clinical trial is seeking study participants who are age 60 or older and continue to feel depressed despite being on antidepressants. Those interested can contact UConn Health’s Jennifer Brindisi at: 860-679-7581 or brindisi@uchc.edu.