Therapy Using Virtual Avatars Helps Schizophrenia Patients

A new treatment for patients who suffer from schizophrenia is being developed and field tested by University College London. According to Julian Leff, the University College London psychiatrist who developed the program, the treatment puts a face on the destructive and negative voices that schizophrenia patients sometimes hear and allows them the opportunity to confront that personality.

"The idea was that if we give the invisible entity a human face then it can be much easier for the patient to converse with it," Leff recently told the BBC.

The way the therapy works is straightforward enough. Working with the patient to get them started the therapist uses a computer simulation to create a safe space where patients create an avatar that represents a voice that is causing them distress. The patient customizes the avatar's face and the pitch of their voice on their own. Once that part of the process is complete, the therapist (in another room) brings that avatar to life, and driving what it will say to the patient. No doubt the language and conversation the avatar uses will be based on prior therapy sessions about a given personality. At this point the therapist encourages the patient to fight back against the avatar.

"I encourage the patient, saying 'you mustn’t put up with this, you must tell the avatar that what he or she is saying is nonsense, you don’t believe these things, he or she must go away, leave you alone, you don’t need this kind of torment,'" Leff explains.

Early results for this type of therapy are being described as promising by Leff. After seven 30-minute sessions each, most of the 16 participants taking part in a pilot study reportedly heard the voices they confronted less frequently and felt less distressed when they did. Patients in the program also say that depressing and suicidal thoughts diminished as well. Three patients stopped hearing the voices altogether after the treatment, according to researchers.

The next step in testing this therapy is to use a larger group. Using a $2 million grant from the Wellcome Trust, Professor Thomas Craig of King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry will begin enrolling 142 patients for a new study in July of next year.

Source: Time

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