Anxiety disorder exists in one out of every eight children, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Treatment through a computer program, instead of psychiatric drugs that can have damaging long-lasting effects, is suggested by Prof. Yair Bar-Chaim, of Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences.
Research by the professor and his associated was published in Science Daily and in the American Journal of Psychiatry..
The treatment uses a technique called Attention Bias Modification (ABM) to reduce anxiety by drawing children away from their tendency to dwell on potential threats, ultimately changing their thought patterns. In its initial clinical trial, the program was as effective as medication and cognitive therapy for children, with several distinct advantages.
"This could be a game-changer for providing treatment," says Prof. Bar-Chaim, who adds, “Children are comfortable with computers. ABM treatments can be disseminated over the Internet or administered by personnel who don't have to be Ph.D.s."
He said that an alternative method to drugs is preferable not only because of the potential side effects of medications but also because of the difficulty in obtaining cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Anxious individuals have a heightened sensitivity towards threats that the average person would ignore, a sensitivity which creates and maintains anxiety,” according to Prof. Bar-Chaim.
“One of the ways to measure a patient's threat-related attention patterns is called the dot-probe test,” he explains.
The patient is presented with two pictures or words, one threatening and one neutral. These words then disappear and a dot appears where one of the pictures or words had been, and the patient is asked to press a button to indicate the dot's location. A fast response time to a dot that appears in the place of the threatening picture or word indicates a bias towards threat.
To turn this test into a therapy, the location of the dot target is manipulated to appear more frequently beneath the neutral word or picture. Gradually, the patient begins to focus on that stimulus instead, predicting that this is where the dot will appear — helping to normalize the attention bias pattern and reduce anxiety.
The research tested thee groups of pediatric patents, one receiving the ABM treatment, the second a placebo group where the dot appeared equally behind threatening and neutral images, and the third group that was shown only neutral stimuli.
In both the placebo group and neutral images group, researchers found no significant change in the patients' bias towards threatening stimuli. However, in the ABM group, there were marked differences in the participants' threat bias. By the end of the trial, approximately 33 percent of the patients in this group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorder.
A large international trial involving his computer program is now being carried out at more than 20 sites across five continents, in collaboration with the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.