There's a wealth of research looking into the genetic causes of schizophrenia, but the majority of it won't be of much assistance to people currently living with the mental disorder. However, new research suggests that the cognitive impairments stemming from the illness may be overcome in part by playing memory-focused video games.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK conducted an experiment which saw a number of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia play an iPad game designed to improve the player's episodic memory – memory of explicit personal experiences that can be tied to a certain place and time, like where you parked your car or left your keys. Episodic memory is one of the cognitive areas affected by schizophrenia, making day-to-day life much harder for those affected by the disease.

The game itself used in the study, called Wizard, was the result of nine months of development by the researchers, who collaborated with schizophrenia patients and a professional game developer to create the title. In the experiment, half of the 22 participants played the game over a four-week period, while the other half acted as a control group and continued their usual treatment.

At the end of the four weeks, the participants had their episodic memory tested and were also measured on the Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) scale, which rates adults on their social, occupational, and psychological level of function. The results, published in Philosophical Transactions B, showed that the patients who played the memory game performed significantly better in subsequent episodic memory testing and saw increases in their GAF scores. They also reported feeling more motivated as a result of having played the game.

Right now, a range of medications are available to treat the psychotic symptoms presented by schizophrenia, but there are no treatments as yet for the cognitive declines caused by the illness. This makes computer-assisted rehabilitation one of the most promising new avenues of research in schizophrenia care, although it has to be acknowledged that the research presented here only involved a very small sample size.

"We need a way of treating the cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia, such as problems with episodic memory, but slow progress is being made towards developing a drug treatment," said one of the team, Barbara Sahakian, in a statement. "So this proof-of-concept study is important because it demonstrates that the memory game can help where drugs have so far failed. Because the game is interesting, even those patients with a general lack of motivation are spurred on to continue the training."

Given how crucial episodic memory is for people's overall quality of life, the Wizard experiment is highly promising – and best of all, the game has been licensed and is expected to become widely available, so that many more people affected by the disease may be able to see improvements in their cognitive functions.

"These are promising results and suggest that there may be the potential to use game apps to not only improve a patient's episodic memory, but also their functioning in activities of daily living," said co-author Peter Jones. "We will need to carry out further studies with larger sample sizes to confirm the current findings, but we hope that, used in conjunction with medication and current psychological therapies, this could help people with schizophrenia minimise the impact of their illness on everyday life."