UW researchers working on video game that could be used to treat depression

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SEATTLE -- Doctors could one day offer a different sort of prescription to treat depression. Instead of going to the pharmacy, patients might just need to go to the app store.

Nancy Dorn isn't your typical gamer. But, the 70-year old grandmother was quickly swiping, tapping and turning her iPad when we asked her to check out a game that could treat seniors with depression.

"This makes you feel like a kid," she said. "It's really kind of cool."

The game is still in testing, so we're not allowed to show the video in motion. But we can show you the success so far.

"When I saw the results and saw they were as good as a standard therapy, I was blown away," said Dr. Patricia Arean. Arean, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, helped author two studies, putting the game in the hands of people with mild or moderate depression. It's called Project: EVO.

The player is an alien with two tasks. They need to navigate a spaceship while also collecting some specimens and avoiding others.

This multi-tasking fires up two parts of the brain: the prefrontal cortex which makes decisions and the anterior cingulate, which navigates roadblocks to a plan. When they're not working well together, a person can lose motivation, have trouble with decisions and concentration and can get depressed.

"You're basically exercising the connection between those brains (sections) giving more strength to the prefrontal cortex, so that it can select out what is really important information in order to adjust plans versus what's just noise," said Arean.

Study participants played five times a week, 20 minutes at a time. After four weeks, game players did just as well as people in standard therapy.

In separate studies, Project: EVO is also being tested on patients with ADHD, traumatic brain injuries and Alzheimer's Disease. If it continues to prove successful, beating a game could also mean beating an illness.

There are two studies at UW and the Brighten Center in need of volunteers. Participants need to be 45 or older for one study and 60 or older for another. A previous depression diagnosis is not required, though the clinic will screen for depression.

If you're interested, you can email for more information.

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