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Brain Training to Treat Depression

A brain training method that teaches patients to control brain activity in certain areas could help treat depression.

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Like a scene from a science fiction movie where the alien controls the readings from a brain scanner, a new brain training technique could give people with depression more control over their own brain activity.

Researchers from the U.K. tested a new method to treat depression that combined feedback, positive imagery and brain scans. By training people to regulate activity in areas of the brain involved in emotion, this technique could provide a new tool to treat depression. Thirty percent of people with depression don’t respond well to current medications or psychological therapy. 

In the study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers asked people with depression to activate areas of their brain involved in processing positive emotion. The researchers didn’t give specific instructions on how to make that happen, but allowed participants to work it out on their own through trial and error.

The participants received immediate feedback on their brain activity—shown to them as an on-screen thermometer—through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

After four sessions, spread out over four to six weeks, people who received feedback on their brain activity showed improvements in their mood. A similar group of people who used only positive imagery—without the benefit of feedback—didn’t improve.

"One of the interesting aspects of this technique is that it gives patients the experience of controlling aspects of their own brain activity,” David Linden, who led the study, told the BBC.

While this type of neurofeedback brain training has been used for people with Parkinson’s disease, larger clinical trials will be needed to determine if it is effective for depression.

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