April 19, 2012

Therapy From a Computer?

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Joseph V. Madia, MD By:

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Depression in teens may have possible treatment with a computer program

(dailyRx News) Computers are helping in many aspects of medicine these days, but what about with mental health issues? Adolescents may find it easier to communicate with a computer than with an adult.

A new study finds that a computer program aimed at helping depressed teens works as well as a human therapist in cases of mild to moderate depression.

This innovation may make help with depression more accessible to adolescents in need of care.

"Talk to your doctor about accessible mental health care options."

In a recent study researchers from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, led by Sally N. Merry M.B., Ch.B., Associate Professor in the department of psychological medicine, set out to test whether or not adolescents with mild to moderate depressive symptoms could benefit from computer aided therapy.

The program is a “computerized cognitive behavioral therapy intervention” called SPARX, which stands for: smart, positive, active, realistic, x-factor thoughts. SPARX has 7 units, users can work though between four to seven weeks.

SPARX is a fantasy styled, 3-dimensional video game. The virtual world is full of gloomy negative automatic thoughts (GNATs) and it is up to the player to bring peace through completing a series of challenges. If SPARX does not see improvement in a player, it can prompt them to get help from a therapist.

Dr. Merry’s study looked at 187 adolescents from the ages of 12-19 and split them into two groups: a SPARX group and a traditional human therapist/patient group. Each of the participants was monitored for three months.

Results were in SPARX’s favor. Forty-four percent of kids in the SPARX group reported complete recovery, compared to only 26 percent of kids in the traditional group. Statistically SPARX is not leaps and bounds better than traditional therapist/patient sessions by any means. SPARX may be a cost-effective way for adolescents with mild to moderate depression to learn positive coping and thought process techniques.

In the form of a CD-ROM that would work on a home computer, teens that would otherwise have limited time or financial access to treatment may be able to work though their symptoms.

This study will be published in the online British Medical Journal, April 2012. The New Zealand Ministry of Health provided funding for  

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Reviewed by: 
Joseph V. Madia, MD
Review Date: 
April 19, 2012

Last Updated:
April 19, 2012