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Precision computerised cognitive behavioural therapy (cCBT) for adolescents with depression: a pilot and feasibility randomised controlled trial protocol for SPARX-UK

Khan, K., Hall, C. L., Babbage, C. , Dodzo, S., Greenhalgh, C., Lucassen, M. ORCID: 0000-0001-6958-3468, Merry, S., Sayal, K., Sprange, K., Stasiak, K., Tench, C. R., Townsend, E., Stallard, P. & Hollis, C. (2024). Precision computerised cognitive behavioural therapy (cCBT) for adolescents with depression: a pilot and feasibility randomised controlled trial protocol for SPARX-UK. Pilot and Feasibility Studies, 10(1), article number 53. doi: 10.1186/s40814-024-01475-7


A serious game called SPARX (Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts), originally developed in New Zealand and incorporating cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) principles, has been shown to help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in adolescents with mild to moderate depression in studies undertaken in Australasia. However, SPARX has never been trialled in the United Kingdom (UK), and there have been issues relating to low engagement when it has been used in a real-world context.

To conduct the first pilot and feasibility randomised controlled trial (RCT) in England to explore the use of SPARX in different settings. The trial will explore whether SPARX supported by an e-coach (assistant psychologists) improves adherence and engagement compared with self-directed (i.e. self-help) use. The trial results will be used to inform the optimal mode of delivery (SPARX supported vs. SPARX self-directed), to calculate an appropriate sample size for a full RCT, and to decide which setting is most suitable.

Following consultation with young people to ensure study suitability/appropriateness, a total of 120 adolescents (11–19 years) will be recruited for this three-arm study. Adolescents recruited for the study across England will be randomised to receive either SPARX with human support (from an e-coach), self-directed SPARX, or a waitlist control group. Assessments will be conducted online at baseline, week 4, and 8–10-week post-randomisation. The assessments will include measures which capture demographic, depression (Patient Health Questionnaire modified for adolescents [PHQ-A]) and anxiety (Revised Child Anxiety and Depression Scale [RCADS]) symptomatology, and health-related quality-of-life data (EQ-5D-Y and proxy version). Analyses will be primarily descriptive. Qualitative interviews will be undertaken with a proportion of the participants and clinical staff as part of a process evaluation, and the qualitative data gathered will be thematically analysed. Finally, feasibility data will be collected on recruitment details, overall study uptake and engagement with SPARX, participant retention, and youth-reported acceptability of the intervention.

The findings will inform the design of a future definitive RCT of SPARX in the UK. If the subsequent definitive RCT demonstrates that SPARX is effective, then an online serious game utilising CBT principles ultimately has the potential to improve the provision of care within the UK’s health services if delivered en masse.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.
Publisher Keywords: Serious game, CBT, Complex intervention, Adolescents, Digital intervention, Depression
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
R Medicine > RC Internal medicine > RC0321 Neuroscience. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences
School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Nursing
SWORD Depositor:
[thumbnail of Khan et al. (2024)_Study protocol SPARX UK.pdf]
Text - Published Version
Available under License Creative Commons: Attribution International Public License 4.0.

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