‘Avatar Therapy’ Can Tame Tormenting Voices in Schizophrenia
Medically reviewed by Paul Sietes, MD.
What would happen if a tormenting inner voice were given an avatar? Would it help a patient with schizophrenia cope with that voice? New research says yes.
In a new pilot study, 16 patients with schizophrenia participated in an experimental treatment, known as “avatar therapy.” The findings showed that nearly all of the participants experienced a reduction in distress and how often they heard voices.
The first stage in the therapy includes creating a computer-based avatar by choosing a face and a voice for the entity that the patients believe is talking to them. The system then synchronizes the avatar’s lips with its speech, allowing a therapist to talk to a patient through the avatar in real time.
The therapist encourages the patient to oppose the voice and gradually trains them to take control of their hallucinations.
“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,” said Julian Leff, Ph.D., who developed the therapy.
“The therapy helps patients gain the confidence and courage to confront the avatar, and their persecutor.”
Schizophrenia is a psychiatric disorder that affects around one in 100 people worldwide. Its most common symptoms are delusions and auditory hallucinations, or hearing voices.
Leff said patients often tell him that the voices are the worst part of the disorder. “They can’t think properly, they can’t concentrate, they can’t work and they can’t sustain social relationships,” said Leff, a professor of mental health sciences at University College London.
In the pilot study, three of the patients, who until the trial had been tormented by voices for between 3-1/2 and 16 years, completely stopped hearing them after working with the avatar system.
Each therapy session was recorded and given to the patient on an MP3 player “so that the patient essentially has a therapist in their pocket which they can listen to at any time when harassed by the voices,” Leff said.
As a result of the early success, the medical charity The Wellcome Trust has given Leff’s team $2 million to test the therapy in a larger group of patients.
According to Dr. Thomas Craig, a psychiatrist who will lead the larger trial at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, auditory hallucinations are especially disturbing and can be extremely difficult to treat successfully.
“The beauty of the (avatar) therapy is its simplicity and brevity,” he said. “Most other psychological therapies for these conditions are costly and take many months to deliver.”
If the larger trial proves successful, avatar therapy could be widely available within a few years, since the technology is fairly simple and many mental health professionals already have the skills to carry it out.
Source: Wellcome Trust