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Can Brain Games Enhance Recovery?

How you can use computer games, puzzles and other brain-training activities to exercise specific cognitive functions

By JESSICA WALTER

The brain regions and neural processes that underlie addiction overlap extensively. According to a study published in the journal Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, addiction functions underlay basic cognitive areas in the brain.

The result is that addiction brings about noticeable alterations in learning, memory, reasoning and attention span. Interestingly, there is an allegory to these symptoms in seniors — something that has been tackled, in part, by brain games.

A potential solution to the problem of long-term cognitive impairment is brain-training games. Marketed as quick and easy to complete, and fitting in perfectly with the digital era, major retailers and manufacturers are now developing brain-training games.

Can brain games that drive neural activity in areas of the brain associated with executive function complement community-based treatment to help those diagnosed with addiction improve decision-making, risk-assessment and the ability to put off immediate gratification?

BASIC THEORIES

With brain-training games largely aimed at seniors diagnosed with degenerative cognitive conditions, much of the scientific research into brain games has been directed toward that population. So what have we learned so far?

Studies have shored up both sides of the debate, arguing both for and against the success of brain training. But scrutiny is a good thing.

John Swartzberg, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley, has suggested that brain games could benefit the brain. Research has shown that the brain is comfortable with change, even in seniors, and stimulating activities such as learning a new skill or taking classes can strengthen neural connections and produce other positive changes in the brain.

So if you want to exercise your brain, study Spanish, take up flower arranging, or learn a new game such as chess or bridge. You may strengthen those neural connections in your brain, and you’ll almost certainly have fun.

But would this theory work for people in recovery?

COGNITIVE REMEDIATION THERAPY

A major challenge of any addiction is the manner in which the disease changes the parameters of the world around you. As life becomes more and more focused on the substance or activity, opportunities become vastly reduced.

Studies have shown that addiction is much deeper than simply craving something; it is a more complex condition that causes damage to the brain and basic cognitive processes.

Although many treatment programs focus on helping people with addiction get sober, rebuild their relationships with friends and family, and live healthier lifestyles, they don’t always offer therapies that help patients rebuild lost cognitive functions. Researchers at Sovereign Health Group, a network of addiction and mental health treatment centers based in San Clemente, California, offer cognitive remediation therapy (CRT). CRT is the use of computer games, puzzles and other brain-training activities to exercise specific cognitive functions, such as working memory, attention and forward planning.

Sovereign’s CEO Tonmoy Sharma compares brain training to physical therapy for the mind: “If a person breaks their hand, they must do physical therapy to regain full function of the hand. The rationalization is the same for CRT — it’s like physical therapy for the patients’ minds after the damage caused by substance abuse.

“With cognitive remediation therapy, our goal is to bolster and teach compensatory strategies,” Sharma told the Los Angeles Times. “We can target certain functions, like attention or memory issues, and it has shown to help people stay in treatment longer.”

EMOTIONAL REINFORCEMENT

Addiction has a profound impact on emotional well-being, too. Visualization of emotional wants and needs is a powerful tool for those tackling issues of confidence and other deep-lying issues, and meditation has proven to be a powerful emotional tool, with numerous scientific studies establishing its worth as a self-confidence-boosting technique. But brain games can help with this, too.

Although cognitively focused, brain games have adapted to assist with mental health and emotional well-being. Mark Baldwin, a social psychology professor at McGill University, suggests that positive thinking benefits mental health, too. He helped develop MindHabits Trainer, a mental well-being computer game that trains the brain to think positive thoughts.

“When we think of self-confidence and stress reduction, we think of deliberate thoughts,” Baldwin told the Washington Times. “But research shows that a lot of what goes on is automatic thought. And what determines the nature of automatic thought is practice.”

According to Baldwin’s research, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, MindHabits helped reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) levels by 17 percent in people who played the game five minutes a day.

Similar digital brain games that encourage players to focus on positive thoughts give them a sense of agency over their actions and emotions, which is so often lost during addiction.

Addiction poses multilayered challenges that can be frustrating for the person diagnosed. Brain games can offer a welcome way to distract the mind and benefit cognitive and emotional well-being.

Jessica Walter is a freelance health and nutrition writer.

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