Computer games may help boost the social skills of people with autism, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Chicago’s Rush University. The study, whose findings were presented this month at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, found improvements in social cognition among people with autism who had played computer games designed to create those improvements. The researchers believe that games can improve “theory of mind,” meaning the ability to infer the thoughts and feelings of others.
Kristin Haut, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Rush University, led the new study, whose findings have not yet been published. According to Haut, the study is the first designed to improve many different aspects of social cognition.
In conducting the study, Haut and her team scanned the brains of 51 non-autistic adults as they read short stories describing a person’s thoughts, feelings, appearance, and actions. Participants then answered an empathy-testing question about whether the actions of the person in the story made sense to them. The task activated brain areas connected with theory of mind, such as the medial prefrontal cortex, the medial parietal cortex, and the temporoparietal junction.
After the story task, the researchers assigned the participants to two groups. The first, consisting of 24 participants, spent up to 15 hours over two to three weeks playing games designed to improve social cognition. The second group (consisting of 27 participants) focused on regular computer games.
Following this period, all of the participants were re-tested on the story task. While the overall performance was the same as it had been the first time, the group who had played the training games seemed to require less mental effort in completing the exercise than those who had only played the regular games. For those who had played the social cognition games, activity in key social cognition areas of the brain was significantly lower than it had been before.
“The individuals who completed the training showed more efficient activation in the social-cognition network,” Haut said. “Essentially, they have to work less hard to do as well at the task. That suggests we are activating the part of the brain we want to be activating when people do this sort of training.”
For their next step, the researchers plan to explore whether the training boosts connectivity between social areas of the brain.