Who would have thought that a hugely popular virtual reality adventure video game, Duke Nukem, could provide crucial clues not only in diagnosing depression but also in determining the severity of such an illness? Instead of the usual set of questions about dreams and relationships with your family, relatives or friends, you are sent out to fight looted aliens in a virtual environment.
What aroused the US National Institute’s interest The Mental Health (NIMH) team of experts is the navigation task that involves the game more than its warlike elements. Based on various studies on depression, the condition could be linked to shrinkage or dysfunction of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory and spatial awareness.
Using a virtual city picked up by Duke In Nukem scenes, volunteers are instructed to move to different sights in the city for a period of time. With the exception of weapons and aliens, the NIMH team led by Leda Gould was able to assess spatial awareness and memory.
The suffering volunteers showed a significant impairment of these mental functions by depression. This provided Gould and her team with a yardstick to measure the severity of their depression, with the chronically most depressed volunteers achieving the worst results in the study.
“Neuropsychological tests have long demonstrated the presence of memory deficits in patients with unipolar depression and more recently in patients with bipolar depression,” wrote Gould in her article in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
“In spatial memory assessment tasks, people traditionally have to remember the position of elements in an array.
“Because of their complexity, navigation tasks based on virtual reality may offer a more consistent, sensitive measure of spatial capabilities and are more likely to require hippocampal involvement. This increases their sensitivity to the effects of depression on this cognitive domain. “
Other physical illnesses like diabetes can be diagnosed and assessed with a simple test. However, there is still no method to quantify the severity of a mental illness, such as depression.
“Depression is extremely complex,” explains London-based psychoanalyst Jean Allen. “And they can be very difficult to diagnose and evaluate.
“It manifests itself in different ways for different people. At the bottom of the scale are those who suffer only slightly and whose lives are not too badly affected. On the other hand, you have chronic clinical depression, which in the worst case can lead to complete psychosis.
“It is very difficult to measure exactly where someone is on this continuum or whether he is on it at all. “
Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Guide to Mental Disorders has defined categories of mental disorders, various criteria for diagnosing and evaluating these disorders, as well as numerous assessment scales for depression, have been developed to quantify and measure their severity mental illness, all of this remains as inaccurate science. They are essentially based on a step-by-step compilation of information through questions and answers and not on a clear, one-time diagnostic test.
“There are a variety of questionnaires that you can use to assess a person’s mental health condition,” says Jean Allen, “but from a psychoanalyst’s perspective, they’re not really accurate. “
This is where the virtual reality navigation test comes in to close this gap. While the study does not provide a clear technique for actually diagnosing depression, it definitely offers the possibility of a new and more accurate measure of depression level.
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