Children’s Anxiety 2.0

Anxiety disorders in children may be treatable with Attention Bias Modification

(RxWiki News) Anxious children often become anxious adults. Changing thought patterns early on may improve the quality of life for those with anxiety disorders.

A new computer program uses a dot-probe method to change thought patterns that contribute to anxiety disorders.

Researchers noted, “Psychological disorders are complex, and not every patient will respond well to every treatment. It’s great to have new methods that have a basis in neuroscience and clinical evidence.”

"Talk to your therapist about Attention Bias Modification."

Yair Bar-Haim, PhD, professor in the School of Psychological Sciences at Tel Aviv University in Israel, lead a study about using computers to help children with anxiety disorders in place of medication.

The computer program researchers are developing is based on a treatment called Attention Bias Modification (ABM). The principles that drive ABM act on lowering anxiety by pulling the child’s attention away from anxiety causing thoughts.

Bar-Haim’s computer trial proved to be as effective in helping children with their anxiety as medication and cognitive therapy.

Computers are in widespread use today, and children are being taught to use them at very young ages. Treatment for anxiety over the Internet doesn’t have the side effects of medication or the accessibility of shuttling a child to a highly trained therapist.

Bar-Haim promotes these reasons, “This could be a game changer for providing treatment.”

The computer program uses a ‘dot-probe test’ to administer ABM. This means that a child looks at a computer that has two words or pictures on the screen. One of the pictures is threatening and the other one is neutral. The picture or word is then replaced by a dot, which the child is supposed to click on.

The time it takes for the child to click on the dot that appears where the threatening word or picture was indicates that the child was lingering over the threatening side more than the neutral one. This is an indication of anxiety.

To make the program into therapy the dot needs to appear more often from behind the neutral word or picture. Teaching the child to quickly move focus away from the threatening stimuli changes the child’s thought patterns.

Eventually the child will be more interested in finding the dot behind the neutral word or picture and begin to ignore the threatening stimuli.

To test the computer program, Bar-Haim’s team took 40 children with clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders and split them up into three groups. One group did the computerized ABM treatment where the dot appeared more often behind the neutral stimuli.

Another group did the computer treatment where the dot appeared equal times behind both stimuli, and another group was only shown neutral stimuli.

The treatment sessions went on once a week for four weeks with a total of 480 dot-probe trials each week. Anxiety levels were tested at the start and finish of each dot-probe session. The equal stimuli and neutral only groups showed no change in their levels of anxiety over the course of the trial. Thirty-three percent of the children in the ABM group no longer tested for an anxiety disorder after the trial.

Bar-Haim’s successful computer program is being tested all over the world, including by the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States.

Medication and cognitive treatments may be necessary for some cases even after the ABM treatment is available to everyone.

This study was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, February 2012. No financial information was given and no conflicts of interest were found.

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Review Date: 
June 15, 2012