New computer game style treatment for childhood anxiety
By John Willis
Researchers from Tel Aviv University have developed a treatment aiming to reduce childhood anxiety by directing the focus away from threatening situations and redirecting it to neutral or positive ones. This is based on a computer program and uses a technique called Attention Bias Modification. First clinical trials have already proven the treatment as effective as the use of medication and other treatments like CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
As many as 1 in 8 children suffers from some form of anxiety disorder and, if untreated or simply not addressed, could have a significant impact on their adult life. The use of medications or other heavy psychiatric treatment in children has usually been approached with caution by both parents/guardians and professionals, so it comes to no surprise that this new treatment, and its apparent lack of side effects, is attracting quite a lot of interest all over the world.
This is not the first time that technology has been used to help anxiety. Children are very comfortable with computers and the researchers hope that eventually this kind of treatment could be “administered” via the internet and would not require highly trained and high costing professionals to do so.
The therapy is based on the “dot-probe” test. On the screen, patients will see 2 words/pictures, one depicting a threatening situation and one a neutral situation. These words then disappear and a dot appears where one of the words/pictures was placed, patients are then asked to press a button to indicate the dot's place. A fast response time to a dot that appears in the place of the picture/word depicting the threatening situation, will indicate a focus towards the threat. The therapy then works by placing the dot under the neutral word/picture more frequently, slowly shifting the patients’ focus on more neutral situations and ultimately reducing their anxiety levels.
For the initial trials, researchers divided 40 children with anxiety disorders into 3 groups. One group was treated with the new ABM treatment, one with a placebo type treatment and one that was only shown neutral words/pictures. The complete trials comprised of one session per week over four weeks, totalling almost 500 “dot-probe” tests per session. What this trial found is that, within the group experiencing the new ABM treatment, over 30% of children responded so well that they did not meet the diagnosis requirements for anxiety disorders after treatment.
Tel Aviv’s University has now been joined by the USA’s National Institute for Mental Health and, on the back of the initial successes of the new treatment, they have launched an international trial involving 20 sites all over the world.
You may also be interested in our story about the video game that helps depression.