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Virtual-Reality Video Game Helps Link Depression to Specific Brain Area

Science Update

Scientists are using a virtual-reality, three-dimensional video game that challenges spatial memory as a new tool for assessing the link between depression and the hippocampus, the brain’s memory hub. Spatial memory is the memory of how things are oriented in space and how to get to them. Researchers found that depressed people performed poorly on the video game compared with nondepressed people, suggesting that their hippocampi were not working properly.

Results were published by NIMH researcher Neda Gould and colleagues in the March issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Earlier studies showed that people with mood disorders tend to have smaller hippocampi than nondepressed people. Other studies showed that depressed people have memory problems. This study strengthened the evidence of a link between the hippocampus and depression by showing that people with hippocampus dysfunction — as revealed by spatial memory problems detected by the new video game — are more likely to be depressed.

Previously, the scientists had given the same people a two-dimensional memory test traditionally used in such studies, in which they were asked to remember the locations of objects on a computer screen — similar to what they would have seen on paper. This two-dimensional test was not able to detect differences in spatial memory that the new video game was able to detect. The reason, Gould suggests, is that the virtual-reality, three-dimensional aspects of the video game engage areas of the hippocampus that the two-dimensional test does not.

Thus, the video game is a more revealing measure of spatial memory and a more sensitive measure of hippocampal dysfunction — a more powerful tool for exploring the link between the hippocampus and depression. It may one day be a tool for detecting hippocampus deficits in depressed patients.

The game was developed by scientists at the University College of London and may point the way to new treatments for depression. With further development, it could help scientists track genetic and other biological factors, as well as environmental factors, that play a role in the illness.

Gould NF, Holmes MK, Fantie BD, Luckenbaugh DA, Pine DS, Gould TD, Burgess N, Manji HK, Zarate CA. Performance on a Virtual Reality Spatial Memory Navigation Task in Depressed Patients. American Journal of Psychiatry, March 2007.