AT THE ICSR BIENNIAL MEETING

San Diego (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – A 22-year-old Minnesota patient with schizophrenia tried to “catch ’em all” during last year’s Pokémon Go craze, and he ended up landing something even more important: motivation to get outside and meet people.

That’s the word from clinicians who report that the game dramatically transformed the young man’s life, coaxing him to leave his house, chat with other players, and even stop worrying so much about his movement disorder.

Could Pokémon Go become a treatment for people with mental illness who need motivation to leave their homes? It’s not clear, and the decline of the Pokémon Go phenomenon may make it difficult for researchers to find out, at least until another version sweeps the nation.

The Minnesota clinicians want to study the idea; they also want to know why it seems – based on a tiny sample – that patients with schizophrenia may have trouble tolerating the “augmented reality” built into the game.

“We’re hoping that can improve our understanding of psychosis and hallucinations, and how the brain understands these stimulations,” said Rana Elmaghraby, MD , a resident psychiatrist with the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and lead author of a new report.

Dr. Elmaghraby and his coauthor Suzanne Geier Jasberg, MD , an attending psychiatrist with PrairieCare Medical Group in Minneapolis, described their findings in a poster at the International Congress on Schizophrenia Research.

The Pokémon Go game appeared in the summer of 2016, and during that time, many of the young patients attending a first-episode psychosis clinic began talking about playing it, Dr. Elmaghraby said in an interview.

“They have the negative symptoms – they’re socially isolated, withdrawing from friends and families, and don’t engage with society,” she said. But the game requires users to travel around the real world in search of Pokémon characters.

“People who hadn’t left the house in many days were getting multiple steps per day by going out in the environment and engaging with other people,” she said.

The poster focuses on the 22-year-old male, who had the disorganized type of schizophrenia with auditory and visual hallucinations. He also had residual dyskinetic movements related to a previous stint on risperidone.

His thought processes were improving, but he’d had trouble leaving the house for 6 months. Then, the game coaxed him into a new phase.

“He demonstrated remarkable improvement in his negative symptoms, most notably motivation,” the clinicians wrote. “The game seemed to have a unique ability to motivate this young person to engage more robustly in social interactions.”

They also noticed that several patients, including the young man, engaged in a peculiar behavior: They turned off the “augmented reality” in the game.

Normally, Pokémon Go players keep the augmented reality feature on, allowing them to see Pokémon characters as if they’re actually nearby. Smartphone screens create the illusion by blending their live camera view of the world with images of the characters. (Think about how Dick Van Dyke appears to dance with animated penguins in “Mary Poppins,” and you’ll get the idea.)

In this augmented reality, your smartphone screen may makes it appear as if a Pokémon character is on top of the coffee cup at your desk, said report coauthor Dr. Jasberg. This feature adds to the immediacy and fun of the game.

But players can turn off this feature, eliminating the view of the world through the smartphone camera. Instead of appearing as if they’re nearby in the real world, the characters simply show up on a green screen, Dr. Jasberg said. (Players still have to go places to find them.)

The patients couldn’t explain why they preferred to turn off the feature, which is easily done, Dr. Elmaghraby said. However, they indicated that it’s not in order to preserve battery life, she said.

Dr. Elmaghraby speculates that their choices may have something to do with their underlying sensory processing dysfunction.

The clinicians hope to study how the brains of patients with schizophrenia work when they play the game with the augmented reality turned off and on. And they’re intrigued by how such games as Pokémon Go might encourage people to move and become socially engaged.

There’s been fairly little published research into the effects of the Pokémon Go craze, possibly because it erupted so recently. Several studies have examined its effects on exercise, with one analysis of college students suggesting that it especially boosted activity levels in the formerly sedentary ( Int J Health Geogr. 2017 Feb 22;16[1]:8 ). Another study of young adults found that the increase of activity in players was moderate and vanished after 6 weeks ( BMJ. 2016 Dec 13;355:i6270 ).

For now, Dr. Jasberg encouraged clinicians to be aware of Pokémon Go and understand that it’s a low-risk intervention. The clinicians didn’t notice any negative impacts, although it’s possible that parents may have gotten zinged by a distinctly modern phenomenon – overtaxed smartphone data plans.

The authors reported no relevant disclosures.

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