The mental chaos present in people who live with schizophrenia isn’t easily treatable, even with our available roster of antipsychotic drugs and psychological therapies.

Though pharmaceutical aids can quiet the intrusive (or positive) symptoms of delusion or hallucination that schizophrenia is best known for, they’re ineffective at restoring a person with schizophrenia’s sense of motivation, emotional affect, or willingness to socially interact (these symptoms are often referred to as negative symptoms). Antipsychotic use, especially when sustained for a long time, can bring along unpleasant side effects like weight gain as well.

And while many with schizophrenia are able to manage their recurrent episodes of psychosis, there remains an undercurrent of cognitive dysfunction, lasting long after the voices in the head go silent. Frightening as a delusion must be, it’s the inability to learn new information, recall memories clearly, or express yourself verbally that truly makes living a normal life difficult for a person with schizophrenia.

According to new research published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B today, however, there might be a way to restore some degree of cognitive functioning for those struggling with the condition, and all it’ll take is a few minutes on an IPad.

The study authors, in conjunction with game designers and people with schizophrenia, spent nine months creating Wizard, a brain game intended to improve a person’s episodic memory through a series of fun and easy activities performed by a customizable avatar.

When someone thinks back to the time they saw a bear during their sixth grade camping trip, that’s their episodic memory at work. In other words, it’s the act of not only remembering a past event, but remembering the circumstances in which that event occurred, including our personal feelings about it.

Over a period of four weeks, the authors told half of their study participants (22 in total), all diagnosed with schizophrenia, to play Wizard in addition to their current treatment protocol, while the other half was simply observed.

Afterwards, the subjects were tested for their memory skills as well as for their sense of social, psychological and occupational functioning. The Wizard players made less memory errors than their non-Wizard counterparts, despite only having played the game for a total of eight hours. The participants who played Wizard also improved in their overall functioning, compared to when they were first assessed prior to the experiment. 

"We need a way of treating the cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia, such as problems with episodic memory, but slow progress is being made towards developing a drug treatment,” said lead author Dr. Barbara Sahakian, a professor of psychiatry at Cambridge University, in a statement . “So this proof-of-concept study is important because it demonstrates that the memory game can help where drugs have so far failed. Because the game is interesting, even those patients with a general lack of motivation are spurred on to continue the training.”

Since the study is admittedly small, it’s difficult to know why those who played Wizard not only improved their memory but were better functioning too. The researchers theorize that the memory boost may have improved the participants’ confidence in themselves. Likewise, it’s possible that simply being able to remember events better makes it easier to handle the various stresses of life.

“We will need to carry out further studies with larger sample sizes to confirm the current findings, but we hope that, used in conjunction with medication and current psychological therapies, this could help people with schizophrenia minimise the impact of their illness on everyday life,” said Dr. Peter Jones, also of Cambridge University, which primarily sponsored the research.

In the meantime, the Wizard game will live on as a training module of Peak, a “personalized self-improvement app” currently available on any iOS platform that helps people enhance their memory, attention, problem-solving and language skills. Awarded “AppStore Best of 2014” in 24 countries, Peak has been downloaded by millions.

In addition to their collaboration with Cambridge University, the app now has brain exercises developed by C8 Sciences , an organization dedicated to improving the outlook of children with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and Applied Cognitive Engineering , which has developed cognitive exercises to improve the performance of athletes.

"This new app will allow the Wizard memory game to become widely available, inexpensively. State-of-the-art neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, combined with the innovative approach at Peak, will help bring the games industry to a new level and promote the benefits of cognitive enhancement," said Sahakian. The Wizard module is set to be available as of today.

Source: Sahakian, BJ et al. The impact of neuroscience on society: Cognitive enhancement in neuropsychiatric disorders and in healthy people. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 2015