Evidence-Based Reviews

Patients with severe mental illness can benefit from cognitive remediation training

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CRT leads to significant improvement at a Texas hospital.



Cognitive impairment seen in severely mentally ill people is well documented, and has been shown to affect as many as 98% of patients with schizophrenia.1 At this time, there are no FDA-approved medications for treating this cognitive impairment.2

Rusk State Hospital in Rusk, Texas, decided to put greater emphasis on improving cognitive impairment because of an increase in patients with a forensic commitment, either because of (1) not guilty by reason of insanity and (2) restoration of competency to stand trial, which typically require longer lengths of stay. Some of these patients experienced psychotic breaks while earning a college education, and one patient was a member of MENSA (an organization for people with a high IQ) before he became ill. Established programs were not adequate to address cognitive impairment.

How we developed and launched our program

Cognitive remediation is a new focus of psychiatry and is in its infancy; programs include cognitive remediation training (CRT) and cognitive enhancement therapy (CET) (Box3-9). CRT focuses more on practice and rote learning and CET is more inclusive, including aspects such as social skills training. These terms are interchangeable for programs designed to improve cognition. Because there is no standardized model, programs differ in content, length, use of computers vs manuals, social skills training, mentoring, and other modalities.

We could not find a program that could be adapted to our setting because of lack of funding and insufficient patient access to computers. Therefore, we developed our own program to address cognitive impairment in a population of individuals with severe mental illness in a state hospital setting.10 Our CRT program was designed for inpatient psychiatric patients, both on civil and forensic commitments.

The program includes >500 exercises and addresses several cognitive domains. Adding a facilitator or teacher in a group setting introduces an additional dimension to learning. Criteria to participate in the program included:

  • behavior stable enough to participate
  • ability to read and write English
  • no traumatic brain injury that caused cognitive impairment
  • the patient had to want to participate in the training program.

We tested each participant at the beginning and end of the 12-week training program, which consisted of 2 one-hour classes a week, with a target group size of 6 to 10 participants. As a rating tool, we used the Repeatable Battery for the Assessment of Neuropsychological Status (RBANS), which has been shown to be an efficient approach to screening for cognitive impairment across several domains.11

We offered 2 levels of training: basic and advanced. Referral was based on the patient’s level of education and current cognitive function. Materials for the advanced group were at a high school or college level; the basic group used materials that were elementary school or mid-high school in scope. Assignment to the basic or advanced training was based on the recovery team’s or psychologist’s recommendation. The training was ongoing, meaning that a participant could begin at any time and continue until he (she) had completed the 12-week training program.

The weekly sessions in the CRT program were based on 12 categories (Table).10

1. Picture Puzzles: Part 1, Odd Man Out. Participants receive a series of 4 pictures and are asked to select the 1 that does not share a common link with the other 3 items. Targeted skills include pattern recognition, visual learning, reasoning, and creativity (looking for non-obvious answers). This plays a role in global cognition and everyday activities that are sight-related.

2. Word Problems. Participants receive math exercises with significant background information presented as text. Targeted skills include calculation, concentration, and reasoning. This helps with making change, figuring out the tip on a bill, balancing a checkbook, and assisting children with homework.

3. Picture Puzzles: Part 2, Matching.Participants view an illustration followed by a series of 4 other pictures, where ≥1 of which will have a close relationship to the example. The participant selects the item with the strongest link. Targeted skills include determining patterns, concentration, visual perception, and reasoning.

4. Verbal Challenge. Participants are provided a variety of word-based problems that involve word usage, definitions, games, and puzzles. Targeted skills include vocabulary, reading comprehension, reasoning, concentration, and global cognition.

5. Picture Puzzles: Part 3, Series Completion. Participants receive a sequence of 3 pictures followed by 4 possible solutions. The participant selects the item that completes the series or shares a common bond. Targeted skills include visual perception, picking up on patterns, creativity, reasoning, and concentration.

6. Mental Arithmetic: Part 1, Coin Counting. Participants are presented math problems related to money that can be solved by simple mental or quick paper calculation. Targeted skills include basic math, speed, concentration, and counting money. This helps with making change and balancing a checkbook.


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