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We often refer to our brain as mental muscle. Now, some researchers are treating depression by rehabbing the brain as if it were a weakened muscle.
Rehab-oriented scientists think of dysfunctional brain areas as “a muscle that is atrophied,” said Greg J. Siegle, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “The solution to an atrophied muscle is to rehab it.”
The research involves activities, including computer games, that target specific cognitive and emotional brain glitches believed to underlie depression. The activities are designed to exercise weakened brain regions much the way physical exercises strengthen damaged muscle tissue.
One brain rehab technique has research participants focusing on a recording of chirping birds. Another has participants solving math problems. These activities stimulate a brain area necessary for emotional regulation.
A third activity pairs either words or images of faces, and trains participants to disengage from the more negative one of each pair, and focus on the more positive choice.
The trials for these techniques have been small, and the results mixed, though It is expected that targeting specific brain dysfunctions will only help certain individuals.
For people who have been managing depression for awhile, these types of activities are likely the same or similar to coping activities you already use to relieve depressive symptoms.
Brain rehab or training is also being studied in the treatment of veterans and others with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) accompanied by symptoms of depression or PTSD.
“This study shows that strategy-based cognitive training focusing on abstract and innovative thinking...lessens depressive and stress-related symptoms,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, Center for BrainHealth.
Participants in this program received 18 hours of training spread over eight weeks. A control group received education on how the brain functions. Those who went through the complex abstraction and innovation brain training activities:
“Our research suggests that interventions that improve frontal lobe reasoning, induces positive brain changes that support higher-order thinking and down-regulation of negative emotion,” said Chapman.
“The benefits of the strategy based training were experienced months and years after injury suggesting that brain injuries should be treated more like a chronic health condition rather than a single short-term event.”
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