Video Games: an Effective Psychiatric Treatment

Computer brain training and physical exercises are improving treatment for children and adults, and helping children do better in school

Many have heard that crossword puzzles keep the brain young as does exercise but increasing evidence is pointing to similar cognitive or physical tasks as a way to circumnavigate taking medicines for certain psychiatric conditions, and to improve thinking and learning in elementary school children. Dr. Bruce Wexler, Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University, works to develop non-pharmacological treatments for psychiatric conditions, such as autism, schizophrenia, cognitive impairment associated with aging, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression, by harnessing neuroplasticity through computer-presented and physical brain-training exercises. Motivated by the desire to better understand the wonderful mystery of the human brain and to apply that understanding to help others, his research has made treatment without medication a reality and holds up in improving education outcomes in inner city schools. For example, rather than Adderall being prescribed to young children with ADD or ADHD as a temporary treatment of symptoms, Dr. Wexler’s games can promote development of brain systems necessary for self-regulation and focused attention!

Dr. Wexler’s research ranges broadly from basic to applied; on any given day, you can find him creating and evaluating computer-based games or physical exercises, working with computer programmers and athlete trainers, reviewing data, visiting schools, and conducting brain imaging studies. Thus far, thousands of school children are already using programs that have been deployed by Dr. Wexler’s team in languages including English, Korean, Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese, and Danish, and have furthermore generated a database of over 150 million data points. Dr. Wexler has received international recognition for his creative approach to empirical science. He recently received an NIH Director’s Award for high innovation, high impact, and potentially paradigm changing research; over 500 senior researchers from all fields of medicine were considered and only 3% recognized. Dr. Wexler’s hope to provide radically novel treatment options paired with his recorded success, has identified him as a leader in the future of psychiatric medicine and a true pioneer in using neuroscience and technology to transform education.

Current research includes:

  • Programming in Schools: Many children come to school without having had enough of the stimulation needed to promote development of brain and cognitive processes of sustained attention and self-regulation. 17% of 6-year-old children have attention problems that put them at 8X increased risk of not graduating from high school. Dr. Wexler’s computer and physical exercises are a "school lunch" program for the brain, providing targeted stimulation of the underdeveloped systems for executive function. As his programs have already successfully been deployed, donations of $5K would allow his team to implement programming for an entire year in a new school.

  • Data Collection: Data is collected on each child that participates in the program culminating in a neuropsych exam for each of them which ordinarily costs $4K/exam but is free to each student in Dr. Wexler’s program. He and his team are therefore able to use data collected to refine future treatment and to give caretakers a report without the cost.

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: Dr. Wexler and his team have spent a year reviewing all the studies related to what causes autism spectrum disorder (ASD). He and his team are now hoping to design potential computer-based brain exercises for these children.

  • ADHD: Dr. Wexler’s program for ADHD provides a non-pharmacological treatment alternative to children diagnosed with the disorder. Continued research will determine how to improve such treatments and furthermore, how to deploy them to the public.

  • Geriatric Depression: Many geriatric patients find psychiatric medications unsuccessful for treating depression. Dr. Wexler’s treatment has been shown to treat a high percentage of patients who did not get better with medication. Integrating brain exercises along with physical exercises, his empirically supported treatment helps to fight cognitive decline.

Bio

In 1995, Dr. Wexler was teaching a course to psychiatry residents on how the brain works. At the time, everything was being treated by looking at neurotransmitters and the level of the synapse. Unexpectedly, students presented a problem to Wexler that has since shaped his professional career: when it comes to therapeutic intervention if all that matters is chemical, how can physiological based treatments be effective? Walking out to his car that afternoon, Dr. Wexler turned the question over in his head and eventually decided he was going to do something about it.

Dr. Wexler began with a treatment on left hemisphere activation. He found that if the left hemisphere was under active, he could effectively change the hemispheric balance for treating schizophrenia. Since, his first studies, he has refined his methods and collected large data sets that have made sense of treating psychiatric disorders without having to prescribe medication.

In addition to his work in the US, Dr. Wexler has spent much time abroad studying diplomacy, the brain, and culture. His book, entitled Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change (MIT Press) has led to the growing field of cultural neuroscience. He has since founded and continues to hold the role of President for an NGO called, “A Different Future,” which hopes to reclaim the public idea space from extremists regarding the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Despite the incredible time he spends in his lab and directing “A Different Future,” Dr. Wexler has still managed to help facilitate developing two Yale startup companies based on the brain training programs he has developed. With one based in China and the other in the US, he is able to distribute his paradigm shifting research through a commercial structure and therefore, make an impact in the community.

In his free time, Dr. Wexler is learning Chinese. He commutes to work by bike year round, and stops on the way way home to swim during the summer. But perhaps most interesting, is his rich collection of antiquities from all over the world. In his collection are pottery pieces that are 6000 years old, and hand blown glass that is 2000 years old. Dr. Wexler says he found the best pieces by making friendships with antique dealers in the countries he was able to visit while working!

Awards

NIH Director’s Award for High Impact, High Innovation Medical Research, 2011

Kempf Award for contributions as researcher and mentor to psychobiological research in psychiatry, American Psychiatric Association, 2103

Brain and Culture selected as an “Outstanding Academic Title of 2007” by Choice Magazine