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Digital avatars help silence voices for patients with drug-resistant schizophrenia

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Avatar therapy UCL (Credit: University College London)
Avatar therapy UCL (Credit: University College London)

Seeing is believing, at least in the case of a new pilot treatment for drug-resistant schizophrenia that has patients interact with digital avatars of the imagined voices in their heads. The "avatar therapy," was designed by researchers at University College London in the UK and is being expanded to larger clinical trial in July, after it helped quiet the voices in the heads of a small group of patients for whom more traditional prescription drug treatments proved ineffective. “They know that [the avatar] cannot harm them, as opposed to the voices, which often threaten to kill or harm them and their family," said Julian Leff, the UCL mental health professor who developed the treatment. "As a result the therapy helps patients gain the confidence and courage to confront the avatar, and their persecutor."

"helps patients gain the confidence and courage to confront the avatar."

The treatment involves having a schizophrenic patient pick select one of several different avatars on a computer, identifying the one that looks most like person they imagine speaking in their head. Then, a therapist takes control of the avatar and uses it to speak to the patient in a modified voice made resembling the voice the patient hears, except this one encourages the patient to stand up to their auditory hallucinations. Each therapy session lasts 30 minutes, and afterwards, the patient is given MP3 recordings of their session, so that they can listen on a music player or computer when an auditory hallucination strikes again. In an initial pilot study performed last year on 16 patients diagnosed with medication-resistant schizophrenia, most of them reported reductions in the number and times they heard voices in their heads, and three patients stopped hearing voices altogether.

Now researchers have received a nearly $2 million (£1.3 million) grant for a much larger clinical trial beginning this summer, which will include 142 patients and report its first results in 2015. Still, even at this early stage, avatar therapy seems like a promising tool and a timely one, as other physicians move to explore the potential of virtual therapies for real-world mental health issues.