Smartphone-Based Psychological Therapy Produces Mixed Results

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Results of several recent studies show mixed results for smartphone- and computer-based applications that aim to address conditions like anxiety and depression, the New York Times reports.

The apps use an approach called cognitive bias modification, which seeks to "break some of the brain's bad habits," according to the Times.

Recent research has examined a program developed on the premise that people with social anxiety tend to focus subconsciously on hostile faces in a crowd of people with mostly neutral expressions.

The program shows users two faces: One with a neutral expression and one that looks hostile. A split-second later, the images disappear and a letter flashes on the screen. Users push a button to identify the letter, and the action aims to help teach users to ignore the hostile faces. The researchers say that with repeated practice, users' eyes can be trained to automatically look away.

Nader Amir, a psychologist at San Diego State University, conducted a series of experiments and found that about 50% of patients with an anxiety disorder who used the program for about 30 minutes twice a week over four to six weeks showed enough improvement that their anxiety diagnosis was no longer accurate.

While such programs might have some success in treating anxiety, they do not appear to have the same effect on depression, according to University of Pennsylvania researchers, who last year analyzed several bias modification studies. According to the researchers, studies showing the programs had no effect on depression were filed away or ignored, while encouraging studies were published.

Researchers from Harvard University and Boston University found conflicting results in the largest study to date on the programs. For the study, 338 participants with mild to severe anxiety symptoms completed more than 4,000 sessions of the two-face program and found that anxiety levels among a placebo group and those using the program fell by the same amount.

Phil Enock, a study researcher and graduate student at Harvard, said, "We're not exactly excited about that finding; we have no idea what it means," adding, "We certainly have shown that you can deliver treatments on smartphones, you can put attention and bias modification tools literally in people's hands, and there's no reason to hold back" (Carey, New York Times, 2/13).


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