A new study has shown that helping schizophrenics put a face to the voices in their head could dramatically help them deal with their auditory hallucinations.
The trial, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in late May, involved 16 patients, all of whom suffered from auditory hallucinations and in particular, hearing disembodied voices. Researchers allowed the 16 patients to create a computer-based avatar, essentially a portrait of a person, that they felt matched the voice they heard.
The computer was then made to synchronize the avatar’s lips with human speech. This enabled a therapist to speak to the patient through the avatar and in real time. At first, the therapist mirrored closely things that the patient had reported the disembodied voice as saying. However, gradually the therapist changed the voice’s words to become positive.
Over the course of up to just seven 30 minute sessions of therapy, the therapist was able to help patients recognize and take control of the hallucinations. The results were staggering. 15 of the 16 patients reported a benefit with only one patient unable to follow the rules of the trial. Of those who did see a benefit, the improvement in their mental condition was marked with a lessening of the frequency and a decrease in the severity of the voices.
In fact, three of the patients stopped hearing voices completely, one after experiencing the hallucinations for 16 years. This approach, known as “avatar therapy,” has caused considerable excitement in the field for its potential applications. Professor Craig of King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, a member of the team behind the study, is quoted as saying:
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.
Schizophrenia is classed as a long-term mental health problem that can have a debilitating impact on a person’s life.
While schizophrenia causes a range of different symptoms, common identifiers include but are not limited to:
- auditory or visual hallucinations
- irrational beliefs that are recognizably delusional
- extreme confusion and an incapability to differentiate reality from those hallucinations
- sometimes wild changes in behavior
While many will know schizophrenia as a violent mental disorder, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all schizophrenics will be violent, but it is true that the symptoms of schizophrenia, putting the patient under sustained and intense mental pressure, have been shown to make sufferers more likely to harm themselves or, sometimes, others.
Currently it isn’t known exactly what causes schizophrenia, though there is some evidence of an interplay between environmental factors and genetic predispositions.
Current treatments combine a full range of medications, including anti-psychotics and behavioral therapy, but these treatments often require several years in order to derive benefit, demanding a consistency that can be hard for schizophrenia sufferers.
Avatar therapy sidesteps this problem by offering quick and targeted results. For this reason, it has drawn significant interest from donors.
The Wellcome Trust, the world’s second-largest biomedical charity, has announced that it is giving the scientific team at University College London and King’s College London the equivalent of a $2 million grant for wider tests for the avatar therapy.
The same team behind the original trial will now embark on a “rigorous” randomized study with 142 new patients who have all experienced auditory hallucinations for a number of years.
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