Posted by Australian Rotary Health
Brain Games Strengthen Areas of the Brain Associated with Mental Illness

Brain games have been found to strengthen areas of the brain associated with mental illness, but do not necessarily prevent them, according to new research funded by Australian Rotary Health (ARH).

Dr Louise Mewton from the University of New South Wales was awarded an ARH Postdoctoral Fellowship from 2015-2018 to investigate whether brain training could prevent mental illness in adolescents.

The idea came from the knowledge that certain areas of the brain (particularly frontal areas) are associated with an increased risk of developing a mental illness.

Dr Louise Mewton 

“Internationally, this was the first study that included enough participants to answer this question properly. No other study has been conducted like this in Australia.”

228 young people aged 16-24 were involved in the study, with half of them completing a brain training program that focused on the frontal areas of the brain, and the other half completing a brain training program that strengthened other parts of the brain not associated with mental illness. Before and after the intervention, participants were asked to complete a questionnaire.

“We found that brain games are capable of strengthening areas of the brain that have been associated with mental illness. These same areas of the brain have also been associated with our ability to plan, judge and strategise.”

Although while these areas of the brain were strengthened, this did not lead to improvements in mental health, alcohol use, or day-to-day-functioning.

“Smaller studies have suggested that brain games lead to improvements in mental health among young people. However, our study was much larger and conducted more carefully,” Dr Mewton said.

“While we did not find that brain games are an effective stand-alone strategy for preventing mental illness, our results are exciting because they indicate that they may be a useful accompaniment for other effective strategies that involve a lot of mental resources.”

Dr Mewton believes further research should focus on whether brain games can be used together with other prevention strategies to boost their effectiveness in young people who might be experiencing cognitive difficulties.

This research is currently under review for publication in Behaviour Research and Therapy.

Dr Mewton is currently working on her project ‘The long term effectiveness of a combined prevention model for anxiety, depression and substance use in adolescents’, with a Mental Health Research Grant from Australian Rotary Health.

Adolescent Mental Illnesses Research

‘Preventing adolescent mental illness through brain training’

University of New South Wales, NSW
Awarded 2015 – 2018

“Amongst young people, the top ten causes of burden of disease are dominated by mental illness and substance use disorders.”


Researcher Profile

In 2012, Dr Mewton completed her PhD at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), University of New South Wales. During her PhD, she developed a successful program of research focusing on the epidemiology and classification of mental illness in the Australian population, with a particular focus on young people. When she completed her PhD, Dr Mewton was appointed postdoctoral fellow and statistical advisor at the Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression (CRUfAD) at St Vincent’s Hospital. In this role, she developed a program of clinical research that focused on internet-delivered treatments for anxiety and depression. During her doctoral and postdoctoral careers, Dr Mewton has also been involved in a number of studies investigating internet-delivered, school-based prevention of mental illness in adolescents.

Dr Mewton’s research output includes 29 publications in leading journals, and she has presented her research at numerous national and international conferences. Her research has been translated into policy and practice. Her classification research provided an evidence base for the diagnosis of mental illness in the newly revised major classification systems. Meanwhile, her research in anxiety and depression has focused on the translation of internet-delivered interventions, that have been shown to be efficacious in clinical trials, into general practice.

Project Summary

Anxiety, depressive and substance use disorders frequently have the same risk factors, co-occur and interact in adolescence. Amongst young people, the top ten causes of burden of disease are dominated by mental illness and substance use disorders. To reduce the occurrence and cost of such illnesses, preventative interventions need to begin early, before the problems begin to cause disability, and vocational, educational and social harm. Yet we have few models of well-implemented prevention programs for these commonly co-occurring illnesses. Emerging research suggests that deficits in executive functioning are a core feature of a range of mental illnesses. As such, cognitive training exercises that focus on improving executive functioning have been shown to reduce symptoms related to schizophrenia, major depression and ADHD, as well as reducing risky drinking in alcoholics. However, it is not yet clear whether such training is also effective in preventing the onset of psychological symptoms in adolescents at risk for developing a broad range of mental illness. As such, the current study will examine whether cognitive training, embedded within internet-delivered computer games, may be an effective prevention strategy for adolescents at risk for developing a range of mental illnesses.

Approximately 40% of adolescents meet criteria for a mental health or substance use disorder, equating to 1.3 million Australian adolescents. By investigating novel and scalable internet-delivered prevention strategies, the current study aims to prevent the onset of mental illness during this critical developmental period, with lasting impacts through to adulthood. The adoption of fully automated and effective prevention programs will be instrumental in reducing the burden of disease attributable to mental illness in the Australian population.

Co-Investigator: Professor Maree Teesson