NUI Galway Study Finds Conclusive Evidence to Improve Cognitive Deficits in Schizophrenia

Professor Gary Donohoe, School of Psychology and Centre for Neuroimaging and Cognitive Genetics, NUI Galway. Photo: Aengus McMahon
Sep 21 2017 Posted: 15:04 IST

An online training programme developed by NUI Galway for patients with psychosis and schizophrenia has resulted in significant improvements to cognitive performance, social function, and changes in brain activity

A new randomised controlled trial led by Professor Gary Donohoe from the School of Psychology and Centre for Neuroimaging and Cognitive Genetics at NUI Galway, has found that when cognitive remediation (CR) training, more commonly known as brain training, is provided even with low support in a community setting, psychosis patients’ scores improved on measures of memory, intelligence, and social and occupational functions.

This first in Ireland study published today (21 September 2017) in the international journal Psychological Medicine investigated the effectiveness of a low support, and hence low cost, remotely accessed computerised working training program in patients with psychosis. An online web-based cognitive remediation training programme was developed by the researchers and specifically targeted ‘working memory’ – the ability to hold information online so that it can be used for planning and problem solving, and a key ingredient of intelligence.

Funded by the Health Research Board, a total of 90 community-based and clinically stable people took part in the study aged between 18 to 65 years who had a history of psychosis, and were engaged in some activity such as, part-time work or attending a rehabilitation clinic for at least two days each week. Participants were recruited from community health teams from various clinical services in Dublin, Wicklow and Galway, and through the Dublin branch of the National Learning Network, a community based rehabilitation service. 

Patients were referred by their local treatment or rehabilitation teams following a series of presentations made about cognitive remediation by the study team. Effectiveness of the intervention was assessed in terms of cognitive performance, social and occupational function, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scanning) two weeks post- intervention, with neuropsychological and social function again assessed three to six months post-treatment. Trial outcomes were registered in advance, with neuropsychological performance designated as the primary outcome measure for the study, and social function and MRI task performance designated as secondary outcome measures.

Lead author of the study, Professor Gary Donohoe from the School of Psychology at NUI Galway, said: “Psychological treatment for major mental disorders are significantly lacking for adults, particularly for those with psychosis. Many patients only partly respond to medication, and deficits in cognition – which often drive the level of disability experienced by patients, are not improved by treatment. Cognitive remediation is known to be effective, but these programs usually require a significant amount of direct contact with clinicians. What is important about this program is that it involved only one hour of weekly contact with a psychologist (the same as for other psychological therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), with most of the training work being done at home.

What is remarkable about this study is that, despite the challenges faced by patients with psychosis, over half were able to complete the training with relatively little support. Following this, the treatment group showed significant recovery not just of memory function and general intelligence, but also in day to day social and occupational function. Perhaps most interesting of all was that, based on MRI scanning, these changes were associated with increased cortical connectivity, which can be thought of as a strengthening of neural networks related to cognitive function.”

Results from the study found that patients who completed the intervention, which consisted of 30 minutes of training at home, five days a week, supported by weekly one hour sessions with a psychologist for a total of eight weeks, showed significant gains in both cognitive and social function at both the two week follow-up and later 3-6 month follow-up timeframes. Patients who completed MRI scanning also showed improved functional brain connectivity relative to patients in the placebo condition (talking weekly to a psychologist without practicing the computerised program).

The study concluded that cognitive remediation training improved cognitive and social function in patients with psychosis. This study demonstrates that, at least for some chronic but stable outpatients, a low support treatment was associated with gains that were comparable to those reported for cognitive remediation training delivered entirely on a one-to-one basis. The researchers found that cognitive remediation has the potential to be delivered even in services in which psychological supports for patients with psychosis are limited.

To read the full study in Psychological Medicine, visit:




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