Researchers hope to stave off depression by training kids to gravitate toward positive images.
Depression prevention training. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.
Depression may stem in part from a tendency to pay too much attention to negative things. Now, Stanford University psychologist Ian Gotlib and his colleagues are training girls with depressed mothers to counteract that tendency, in hopes of preventing depression from striking them.
The girls play a video game in which two faces appear on the screen: either one happy and one neutral, or one neutral and one sad. The object is to uncover a dot underneath.
And in the training, the dots are always behind the happy face in the happy-neutral, and they’re always behind the neutral face in the neutral-sad. So they’re always trained away from sad and towards happy.
The technique sounds incredibly simple, but other researchers have already shown that it can treat anxiety. And preliminary results suggest that it does reduce the girls’ stress responses to negative stimuli, which is a key marker of depression. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.
Making Sense of the Research
Like most mental illness, depression is a complex disorder that has many possible causes, which may occur in different combinations for each patient. However, researchers still try to come up with some common themes that tie many cases together. One cognitive model of depression—in other words, a theory that explains the underlying thought processes that drive it—states that depression comes from a tendency to pay too much attention to negative things, and not enough attention to positive things. Certainly it's a good description of how depressed people often view the world.
So how might you correct that? Many people with depression spend years in psychotherapy, learning to be aware of their tendency to focus on the negative, and taking steps to try and think differently. This experiment, however, tackles the issue on a much more basic level, by training people to literally look away from unhappy images and look toward happier ones.
The participants in this study are all early adolescent girls; the researchers chose to focus on girls because girls face a higher risk of depression than boys. All of the girls in the study have mothers who suffer from depression. Because depression tends to run in families, that puts them at a higher than average risk of developing depression later in life. And while the girls themselves have not been diagnosed with depression or any other mental illness, Gotlib's research has shown that their brains, like their mothers', already overreact to sad or negative input.
The training they receive is basically a simple computer game. The object is to score points by uncovering a dot hidden under one of two faces. The faces appear in two different combinations: one happy and one neutral, or one neutral and one sad. For the girls in the experimental group, the dot is always behind the more positive of the two faces. So they learn to gravitate towards happy images and away from sad ones. A control group plays a similar game, but the dots appear behind the faces at random.
Girls who play the experimental game do seem to benefit from it. As you heard, they show fewer stress responses, like startled blinking, in response to negative faces as their training continues. The control group, on the other hand, didn't improve.
The real question is whether this simple game can help prevent depression in the long term. A similar technique has already proven effective in treating anxiety disorders. To find out if it works against depression, Gotlib's team will follow the trained girls over several years, and compare them to a similar study group of 200 girls with depressed mothers who will be monitored for mental health issues, but won't receive the video training.
Now try and answer these questions:
- What fundamental aspect of depression does the training program address?
- What is the advantage of making the procedure so simple and straightforward?
- What was the difference in the video games played by the experimental group and the control group? Why was this difference so important?
- Do you think the training will work? Why or why not?
You may want to check out the December 2, 2011, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: Could dreaming help heal emotional wounds?, the relationship between the placebo effect and chronic pain, and new research into the genetics of empathy. Also included: a computer program to help prevent depression in girls, and exploring sex differences in mood disorders.
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The Science Update lesson Emotion Perception explores the roots of psychological and social problems experienced by victims of child abuse.
The Science Update lesson Body Image describes research on perception that may lead to treatments for eating disorders like anorexia.