We’ve written a great deal about schizophrenia in the past, mostly reports about new theories pertaining to the development of the disease or new types of pharmacological treatments. A great deal of interest and efforts are being invested in battling this severe psychological disorder, since it affects so many people (as many as 1 in 100) and its effects make living a normal life nearly impossible. A new alternate therapy was recently reported, with great promise that it might help countless people suffering from the disease, that assigns  avatars to the patients’ tormenting voices. Results so far are looking great, and large scale implementation is scheduled to run shortly.

King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry (IoP)

Avatars created by patients in the pilot study. (c) King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry (IoP)

The most common symptoms of schizophrenia  are delusions (false beliefs) and auditory hallucinations (hearing voices). The latter are simply devastating, making it impossible for the diseased to concentrate, work or have healthy relationships. Basically, schizophrenia turns you into one big nutcase. To silence voices in peoples head, existing therapy relies on medication, “talking therapy” or a combination of both. Even with the most effective anti-psychotic medication, around one in four people with schizophrenia continue to suffer from persecutory auditory hallucinations, severely impairing their ability to concentrate.

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Researchers at King’s College London have developed a novel system that battles the voices inside the schizophrenic diseased individual by creating avatars of these voices so that they may be confronted more easily. Through the computer-based system, people design  computer-based avatar, by choosing the face and voice of the entity they believe is talking to them. The computer then synchronises the avatar’s lips with its speech, enabling a therapist to speak to the patient through the avatar in real time. The therapist encourages the patient to oppose the voice and gradually teaches them to take control of their hallucinations.

“Auditory hallucinations are a very distressing experience that can be extremely difficult to treat successfully, blighting patients’ lives for many years.  I am delighted to be leading the group that will carry out a rigorous randomised study of this intriguing new therapy with 142 people who have experienced distressing voices for many years.

“The beauty of the therapy is its simplicity and brevity. Most other psychological therapies for these conditions are costly and take many months to deliver. If we show that this treatment is effective, we expect it could be widely available in the UK within just a couple of years as the basic technology is well developed and many mental health professionals already have the basic therapy skills that are needed to deliver it.”

An early pilot therapy was conducted with 16 patients using this novel method, most of whom reported dramatic improvements in suppressing the nagging voices inside their heads. Three of the patients stopped hearing voices completely after experiencing  auditory hallucinations for 16, 13 and 3.5 years, respectively.

Professor Julian Leff,  Emeritus Professor, UCL Mental Health Sciences, said: “Even though patients interact with the avatar as though it was a real person, because they have created it, they know that it cannot harm them, as opposed to the voices, which often threaten to kill or harm them and their family. As a result the therapy helps patients gain the confidence and courage to confront the avatar, and their persecutor.

“We record every therapy session on MP3 so that the patient essentially has a therapist in their pocket which they can listen to at any time when harassed by the voices. We’ve found that this helps them to recognise that the voices originate within their own mind and reinforces their control over the hallucinations.”

Its really inspiring to hear of a therapy with such promising results that doesn’t rely on medication, which in my book should be the last course of action. The larger-scale study at the IoP will begin enrolling the first patients in early July. The team are currently training the therapists and research staff to deliver the avatar therapy and finalising the study set-up. The first results of this larger study are expected towards the end of 2015.

source: UCL