Video game holds clues to schizophrenia, says UBC researcher

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BY THANDI FLETCHER

After staring into the eyes of schizophrenia patients, a University of B.C. researcher says she may be on the path to eventually finding new ways to treat the mental illness through using a simple video game.

“There is a lot of potential,” said lead author Miriam Spering, an assistant professor in the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences. “I think we are some years away from actually making this a standard therapy, but it could become a tool.”

In a study published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience, Spering and her colleagues tested 15 patients diagnosed with schizophrenia and 16 control patients who had no history of the mental illness.

The researchers had the test subjects play a video game called “eye soccer” to test their eye movements.

Study participants were asked to watch a ball move across the screen at a constant speed toward a stationary line. After either tracking the ball smoothly or fixating on the line, the participants were asked to judge whether the ball would have hit or missed the line, testing their ability to predict the trajectory of the ball.

The results were surprising, said Spering, and could be a breakthrough in schizophrenia research.

The researchers found that schizophrenia patients not only have a harder time tracking the moving object but also in predicting its trajectory, an impairment that suggests a “broken connection” in their ability to interpret what they see.

“It doesn’t actually matter so much what they do with their eyes,” said Spering. “What it seems to depend on is that they can’t use the information from their eye movements.”

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects about 300,000 Canadians, according to the Schizophrenia Society of Canada. The disorder distorts a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others, with a common symptom being psychosis, in which patients experience hallucinations and delusions, according to the society.

Spering said the researchers believe this eye movement impairment is the cause of symptoms that make it hard for schizophrenia patients to carry out daily tasks like reading a map, safely crossing a street, or even dialing a phone.

The impairment could also explain some of the psychotic symptoms they experience, like hallucinations, said Spering.

The deficit causes the brain to attempt to fill in the blanks using previous experiences, which could cause hallucinations.

“They really have a problem seeing smooth motion,” Spering said. “With an inability like that in everyday life, you have a lot of problems.”

While scientists have known for decades that schizophrenia patients have the characteristic eye movement deficit, in which their eyes make jerky instead of smooth movements, this study is the first to test the brain’s ability to make sense of information gathered from the eyes, said Spering.

Now that researchers understand the cause of the symptoms, Spering said she hopes to develop a mobile app in the future that allows patients to practice eye movement skills to improve their ability to carry out daily tasks.

Spering is now applying her research to Parkinson’s patients, who have the same eye movement impairment, to see if the exercise could benefit them as well.

The research could also be useful for professional athletes looking at improving their visual motor abilities, she said. Spering is currently working with the UBC baseball team to see if the video game could help players in their training.

Thu, 08/08/2013