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NIH Funds Depression Game Therapy Clinical Trial

Brain activity graphic

(Gordon Johnson, Pixabay)

26 July 2023. A treatment for depression designed as a game for patients will be assessed in a clinical trial conducted by a university psychology lab and funded by National Institutes of Health. The study, led by mental health professor Christopher Beevers at University of Texas in Austin, is evaluating the therapeutic game code-named ABM-02 developed by Arcade Therapeutics Inc. in New York.

Arcade Therapeutics is a four year-old company, originally named Wise Therapeutics, seeking to make it easier for people with mental health disorders to get help for their conditions, by applying advances in digital health and mobile gaming. The company’s core technology aims to address the greater attention and perceptions of threats by people with anxiety or depression, using games that modify cognitive processes underlying these negative patterns. The games employ a therapy technique called attention bias modification developed in tandem with greater access to mobile computing, and adapted with algorithms by the company to meet individual treatment needs and game-playing patterns.

Arcade Therapeutics’ lead product is StarStarter Rx that uses mobile games with attention bias modification or ABM in a digital therapy for social anxiety disorder. Recent research funded by National Institute of Mental Health, part of NIH, offers evidence that attention bias modification can also engage patients to reduce attention to threats, and encourage cognitive changes for reducing symptoms of major depressive disorder or MDD, a serious mood condition. Depression is treated in most cases today with psychotherapy, medications, or both.

Track depression symptoms over six months

The clinical trial, conducted by Beevers and colleagues at UT-Austin, is enrolling 600 individuals with major depressive disorder. Participants will be randomly assigned to receive attention bias modification therapy in game form with ABM-02, attention bias modification through conventional psychotherapy, or a sham therapy that looks like attention bias modification. The study team plans to assess participants’ symptoms of depression periodically over six months, seeking evidence of progress, if any, over that time. National Institute of Mental Health is funding the trial, with $3.8 million over five years.

“We’ve known for decades that the tendency to focus too much on sad or dysphoric information drives and exacerbates symptoms of MDD,” says Beevers in an Arcade Therapeutics statement released through Cision. “Game-based ABM has the potential to effectively reduce this tendency, and thus MDD symptom severity, while also being highly accessible, scalable, and engaging to its users as a non-pharmacologic treatment option.”

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, company co-founder and chief scientist, notes a game like ABM-02 can also help reduce the stigma that often hinders people with depression getting treatment. “Only half of those suffering from depression seek and receive treatment,” says Dennis-Tiwary adding, “Along with accessibility, one of the biggest barriers to receiving mental health treatment is stigma. By taking a clinically validated, game-based approach, ABM-02 not only radically improves accessibility, but reduces the stigma of seeking treatment for mental illness and meets patients where they are.”

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