Video Games: More Effective Than Antidepressants?

New study says some seniors could benefit from a little gaming

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Feeling depressed? Don't be surprised if someday your psychiatrist suggests you just play some computer games. According to new research, that may actually be better advice than taking medication.

As if gamers needed another reason to pick up the controller, a study has found that playing video games may be a quicker and more effective method for reducing depression than taking the major antidepressant drug escitalopram (known by its brand names Lexapro and Cipralex).

The study tasked 11 depressed patients aged 60 to 89 with playing computer games specifically designed to improve brain fitness. Researchers wanted to study how the activity affected patients’ executive functions—a term used to describe the brain’s handling of critical facilities like memory, reasoning, problem-solving, and planning.

The scientists found the games were better than prescription drugs at improving these functions. After the study period, the patients were found to be both sharper and happier, indicating that improving executive functions can have a beneficial effect on depression.

But hold up before you throw away your SSRIs: Because the impairment of executive functions is only associated with depression in elderly patients, the findings are most likely limited to senior citizens.

Researchers believe some sort of computerized therapy could be used to help people with other brain disorders as well.

“Depression is a serious and at times life-threatening illness," Sarah Shizuko Morimoto, lead author and research neuropsychologist at Weill Cornell Medical College, told Live Science. "This is a biological illness of the brain, no different from any other illness, and it necessitates treatment.”

The problem is that, among elderly patients, roughly a third are resistant to antidepressant drugs. Meanwhile, according to Morimoto, nearly half of depressed seniors show signs of impaired executive functions. Crucially, there's a high correlation between those who aren't helped by antidepressants and those who struggle with executive functions.

"Our findings suggest that the health and functioning of brain circuits responsible for executive functions are important for recovery from depression," she added.

Though the results are limited to the elderly, the report, published in the journal Nature Communications, could have implications for the treatment of depression in general. Researchers believe some sort of computerized therapy could be used to help people with other brain disorders as well.

But this shouldn't be taken as evidence that all video games are good for the brain. According to the study, effective video game treatment would require a specific kind of engagement—one that enhances cognitive functions. So, you know, not Candy Crush.

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