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Virtual Reality Aids Memory Improvement in Schizophrenia, Study Finds

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Schizophrenia, a complex mental health condition, significantly impacts the cognitive functioning of individuals, particularly in the realm of verbal episodic memory. Recent advances in cognitive remediation therapy (CRT) suggest promising interventions for such cognitive deficits.

A new study, published in the journal Schizophrenia Research: Cognition, has taken a leap forward by incorporating virtual reality (VR) into CRT, offering a new horizon for the treatment of schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is often accompanied by impairments in various cognitive domains, with verbal episodic memory being a predominant area of deficit. This impairment is not just limited to acute phases but persists across various stages of the illness. Despite advancements in pharmacological treatments, these medications have shown limited efficacy in ameliorating cognitive symptoms. This gap underscores the pressing need for innovative, non-pharmacological interventions.

The introduction of VR into cognitive remediation offers an immersive experience that potentially increases the ecological validity and transferability of learned skills in real-world contexts. The study hypothesised that VR-based cognitive remediation, modelled on Strategy for Semantic Association Memory (SESAME) principles, would be effective in improving verbal episodic memory in individuals with schizophrenia.

Thirty participants diagnosed with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder were enrolled in a proof-of-concept trial. The study employed a single-blind, parallel-group randomised controlled design. Participants were divided into two groups: an intervention group receiving VR-based CRT inspired by SESAME principles, and a control group engaged in VR-based visuospatial puzzles. The study focused on feasibility, acceptability, and preliminary efficacy of the VR module.

The VR intervention demonstrated a notable trend towards improved use of semantic clustering strategies, with medium effect size, although it did not reach conventional levels of statistical significance. Participants reported high levels of enjoyment and minimal cybersickness, indicating the acceptability of the VR module. The attrition rate was low, establishing the feasibility of the approach.

The study suggests that VR-based cognitive remediation can be a feasible, acceptable, and potentially effective method for improving semantic encoding strategies in schizophrenia. This approach paves the way for more ecological and engaging treatments for cognitive impairments associated with schizophrenia. Future research could explore more extended VR interventions, larger sample sizes, and comparing VR-based CRT with traditional methods.

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