Simple computer-based “brain games” may be an effective new way to treat the kind of negative thought patterns that can lead to depression and complicate therapy. Those thought patterns are called rumination—rehashing a negative experience over and over in your mind. If you’ve ever be caught in that kind of endless loop, you know that it usually makes you feel worse, not better.
The new approach, designed by neuroscientists and psychiatrists, uses simple engaging computer brain games that help you focus and gain control over your emotions. The research is at an early stage, but it’s exciting—and there are easy ways that you may be able to benefit from it right now, whether you’re depressed or not.
It’s called cognitive control training (CCT).
WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT RUMINATION?
Ruminators can’t stop thinking negative thoughts about themselves or stressful experiences they’ve had. When such thoughts are infused with self-criticism and self-blame, it’s called brooding—an even more damaging form. “Rumination is important because it makes depression worse, and last longer,” says Greg Siegle, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
The light bulb for Dr. Siegle and colleagues, who are among the first to study CCT for rumination, was the realization that ruminators have poor cognitive executive control. That’s psych shorthand for the ability to keep your focus on the bigger picture and “be in charge” of your thoughts and behavior.
It boils down to which part of your brain is calling the shots. The amygdala is a region in the back of the brain that processes emotions, including strong emotions like fear. Ruminators and brooders have overactive amygdalas, brain imaging studies show. People with better executive control activate an area in the front of the brain—the prefrontal cortex—to inhibit the amygdala.
Which brings us to brain games. Dr. Siegle’s group developed customized computer-based games, already known to activate the prefrontal regions, to help defuse rumination. Similar research is going on in psych labs around the world. The theory? By activating these regions, you strengthen cognitive control, so the person is less susceptible to negative emotions.
CCT IN ACTION: PAY NO ATTENTION TO THOSE ARROWS!
To get a sense of how CCT works, let’s look at a new study from a different research group, in Israel. Subjects were asked to identify the direction of the middle arrow in an array of five arrows on a computer screen. That’s easy when all or most of the arrow images are pointing in the same direction. That’s what the control group experienced. But the experimental group had to pick the middle arrow’s direction when the other arrows were pointing randomly up and down. That trains the brain to exert more executive control and ignore distractions. Both the controls and the experimental group were also distracted by images that were either neutral (women in an office, a supermarket) or negative (a baby crying, a war scene) during the game. Result? Members of the experimental group had less of an emotional reaction, ruminated less and were less sad.
Can brain training actually prevent depression? We don’t know yet, but in a Belgian study, ruminators at high risk of developing depression were given 10 CCT lessons and then four weeks later given a stressful task. Compared with controls who didn’t get CCT, they didn’t respond as negatively to the stress, and they brooded less. In Dr. Siegle’s studies, patients with depression who had CCT were less likely to need to use outpatient mental health services over the next year, compared with controls.
Even for people who respond to CCT, it would not necessarily replace therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on helping people reframe distorted thinking patterns. Instead, CCT could be a companion approach that makes working with a live therapist more effective, Dr. Siegle says.
Dr. Siegle’s vision is to develop a free CCT brain games app for the public. That will require more study. Right now, CCT is available only in research settings. However, commercially available brain games may be useful in developing some of the same skills that are developed in CCT. To be sure, these are not designed or validated to help prevent, let along treat, depression—and if you have depression you should get professional help.
But some brain games on the market now may be helpful for ruminators, says Siegle. When choosing specific games, select those related to attention and what’s called “working memory”—the ability to juggle a lot of information at one time. That’s the kind of training that can help strengthen the prefrontal cortex. Games that develop executive control and sustained attention may also be useful. To learn more, see Bottom Line’s Just 10 Hours of Brain Training Can Produce Benefits That Last 10 Years, 8 New Ways to Keep Your Brain Fit and Fight Dementia, and Fun Ways to Keep Your Brain Sharp as You Age.