By watching avatars that represent their hallucinations on a screen, patients suffering from schizophrenia are better able to deal with their symptoms. The scientists who created the novel form of therapy hope that it could add a new dimension to existing techniques helping patients deal with the voices in their heads.
While it is not true that every single person who suffers from schizophrenia experiences hallucinations of voices in their head, this symptom does affect between 60 and 70 percent of patients. These experiences are often disturbing as the voices can be insulting and threatening. Conventional treatment with counseling and drugs can cut these hallucinations, but for around 25 percent of sufferers they either don’t go away or return. The new avatar therapy can help these patients.
To create the avatar, the researchers sat down with 150 people who have experienced persistent and distressing auditory hallucinations for more than a year despite treatment, and crafted each one individually. The patients were able to select the face shape, skin tone, and even eyebrow thickness that best matched with the voice that they were hearing. They were then able to change the tone and pitch of the voice itself to sync up with what was in their head.
From this, the patient would then sit down with a therapist who would talk to them both through the avatar and as themselves in a three-way conversation. This allowed the patient to confront the voices that they were hearing in a visual way, while the therapist ensured that they got the upper hand over the hallucinations.
This was an important aspect, according to the researchers, as it gave the patients the confidence to stand up to the avatars themselves. This, however, is not something that all patients can cope with, as some found the experience too distressing. But for those who were able to face their inner voice, it seemed to help.
“Our study provides early evidence that avatar therapy rapidly improves auditory hallucinations for people with schizophrenia, reducing their frequency and how distressing they are, compared to a type of counselling,” said Professor Tom Craig, who led the study published in The Lancet Psychiatry. “So far, these improvements appear to last for up to six months for these patients.”
This study has only been carried out on a handful of patients at one clinic, but the results look promising. The researchers now want to expand it and see if the outcomes observed hold.