Depression is a debilitating illness that affects millions of Americans every year, including more than 7 million adults over age 65. Depression can be particularly serious in older adults, especially those with other medical conditions, social challenges unique to old age and who face the common false stigma that being depressed is just part of getting old. In addition to these challenges, many drugs normally used to treat depression aren’t as effective in older adults. Some studies have shown that antidepressants only help one in three individuals over 65 return to normal functioning.
A study out this week might offer a new solution. Previous research had shown that depression in older adults is linked to declines in executive functioning, which includes being able to make plans for the future, hold items in short-term memory and problem solve. Given this link, researchers wanted to see if working on and improving these types of functions might also reduce the symptoms of depression in adults who did not respond to medications.
To do this, they designed two games. The first involved watching moving balls on a screen and pressing a button when its color changed, which tested attention and accuracy. The second involved rearranging word lists into categories, which tested speed and accuracy. If participants did well, the games got harder. The gaming took place over four weeks for a total of 30 hours.
The researchers compared these individuals to a group of similar individuals who were prescribed antidepressants instead of playing the game. They found that those who played the game recovered from depression just as well as those taking the medications, but saw a result in a third of the time (four weeks instead of 12). In addition, the executive functioning of older adults who played the games improved more in those who got better than in those who took the drugs and got better.
The finding emphasizes the biological foundation of depression, showing that how the brain processes information may be essential to understanding mental illness. While the study was small and needs to be repeated on a larger scale to be sure of the results, it opens up a completely new way of thinking about treatment for mental illness based more on circuitry than chemistry. If these treatments prove effective, it’s likely that they would serve alongside current forms of therapy to help improve symptoms faster in more people.