Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Attention Training Using Computers May Lessen Anxiety in Youth

Computer modules that help young people practice focusing their attention may improve symptoms in youth with treatment-resistant anxiety, according to a report in the Journal of the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Adolescents who had previously been treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) but still experienced anxiety showed significant reductions in symptom severity after they received treatment with either one of two training modules—Attention Bias Modification Treatment (ABMT) and Attention Control Training (ACT).

“These findings suggest that both attention-training protocols may increase attention control and thereby reduce anxiety,” wrote Jeremy W. Pettit, Ph.D., of the Florida International University, and colleagues.

Both modules involve showing simultaneous images of neutral and angry faces, followed by a symbol or probe (“<” or “>”) appearing in the location of one of the faces. Participants are instructed to indicate the orientation of the probe by clicking the left or right mouse button (left for “<”, right for “>”) using their dominant hand. The task tests the subjects' bias toward paying attention to a threatening or nonthreatening stimulus and requires them to repeatedly practice focusing their attention.

Sixty-four youths (34 boys, 30 girls) with an average age of 17 who continued to have anxiety after completing CBT were randomized to four weeks of twice weekly ABMT or ACT. The primary outcome was the score on the six-item version of the Pediatric Anxiety Rating Scale (PARS). The secondary outcome was the score on the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders–Child and Parent versions (SCARED-C/P). The latter consists of 41 items on which youth and parents rate youth anxiety symptoms.

Scores on both measures were significantly better at four weeks and at two-month follow-up, with no significant differences between the two groups. At two-month follow-up, the primary anxiety disorder diagnostic recovery rate was 50% for ABMT and 65% for ACT.

“We found that both forms of attention training led to improvements in attention control,” said Pettit in comments to Psychiatric News. “Increases in attention control were associated with decreases in anxiety severity. We interpret these findings as indicating that attention training influences later-stage, strategic attentional processing, and improvements in strategic attentional processing are associated with reductions in anxiety.”

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “ Peer Program Helps High Schoolers Handle Depression, Anxiety.

(Image: alvarez/istock.com)