Avatar Therapy May Silence Schizophrenia Sufferers’ Demons

The promising new treatment lets patients create a virtual representation of the scary voices that previously existed solely in their imaginations.

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Julian Leff/UCL

Avatars created by schizophrenia patients

For years therapists have used computer simulations to create a safe, virtual space where people can confront their real-world phobias of everything from planes to spiders. Now the treatment is being adapted for schizophrenia patients to help them talk back to the frightening voices inside their heads. “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,” Julian Leff, the University College London psychiatrist who developed the treatment, told the BBC.

Here’s how it works: The therapist presents a patient with a computer-generated avatar that represents a particularly distressing voice. The patient then customizes the avatar’s face, hair and pitch of its voice. Next the doctor, who is seated in a separate room, brings the avatar to life onscreen by saying frightening things through a voice-altering technology that emulates the pitch selected by the patient.

Finally, the doctor tells the patient to fight back. “I encourage the patient,” Leff explained to the BBC, “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.”

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Early results are promising. After up to seven 30-minute sessions each, most of the 16 participants in the pilot study reportedly heard the voices less frequently and felt less distressed when they did. As they talked back to their virtual tormenters, depressing and suicidal thoughts diminished as well. Three patients even stopped hearing the voices altogether after the treatment.

The next step is to test the technique on 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. “The beauty of the therapy is its simplicity and brevity,” Craig said in a press release issued by the Wellcome Trust.

Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that is characterized by delusions and hallucinations. It affects about one percent of the population. Up to a quarter of all schizophrenia patients do not respond to medication and one in ten attempt suicide.

(MORE: Embracing virtual reality)