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Ground-breaking new treatment offers hope for schizophrenia sufferers

[Feature photo: circuits program screengrab – source: Dr Matt Thomas]

  • NSW Department of Health provided a $170, 000 grant to run the 2 year program at Orange’s Bloomfield Hospital
  • CIRCUITS program developed by academics at King’s College London, first time it has been trialled in NSW
  • Showing significant promise for moving patients from 24-hour hospital care and into the community

A two-year trial of a new computer program for patients with schizophrenia at Orange’s Bloomfield Hospital has been so successful, the researchers behind it are educating other hospitals in the Central West about the treatment.

The computer-based program, called CIRCuiTS, focuses on teaching patients problem-solving skills by immersing them in an animated environment with activities based around everyday situations such as cooking and traveling on public transport.

Chief Investigator for the program Dr Matt Thomas said while Cognitive Remediation Therapy is common, CIRCuiTS is a new way of delivering the treatment.

“CIRCuiTs is set apart from other cognitive remediation therapy in that it’s web-based, a lot of it is automated, which means the therapists can have fairly basic training in comparison with other types of cognitive remediation therapy.”

As of July 2018, several in-patients at Bloomfield Hospital and a handful of sufferers in the community have completed the program, with more in process.

“There has been interest in the program… We’ve got some work going on within the Western NSW Local Health District where we’re looking at upscaling our pilot project in the Orange area across the districts and the major communities within this district.”

[Graph 1 – source: CIRCUITS Implementation Trial Update July 2018]

Dr Thomas said one of the most debilitating aspects of schizophrenia is the impact it has on an individual’s cognition, particularly in social situations.

“…Being able to pick up cues, social cues in a way that’s fluid. But it also comes with cognitive impairment. The combination of negative symptoms and cognitive problems affects broad aspects of people’s lives across a range of functions, including daily living.”

The program is the result of more than 30 years research by several King’s College researchers, especially leading psychiatric academic Dame Professor Til Wykes.

Professor Wykes initially developed the program as a ‘pen and paper’ treatment. The move to a computer program was only completed in 2010 and has been identified as one of the four schizophrenia treatments recommended by the NSW Department of Health.

The program is one of many investments in schizophrenia treatment the NSW Government has made recently, with $4 million given to Neuroscience Research Australia in May.

 Schizophrenia facts:

  • It is a developmental brain disorder (like Autism Spectrum Disorder) and is most commonly first identified in adolescence or old age, as the brain undergoes significant changes.
  • It affects executive functioning: sufferers have problems with organising, foreseeing consequences and planning.
  • Academics and doctors agree there are 7 key functions affected by schizophrenia:
    • Processing speed
    • Verbal memory
    • Visual memory
    • Attention vigilance
    • Working memory
    • Social cognition
    • Reasoning judgement
  • While the level of impairment can vary, it is generally a very disabling and isolating illness.

By Mollie Gorman.