Avatar therapy rescuing patients with schizophrenia

Patients suffering from bouts of schizophrenia who do not respond to medication are now helped through avatars developed by a team of researchers. People with schizophrenia learned to control hallucinatory voices with the aid of a computer program that used avatar of their imagined persecutor. This study conducted and led by psychiatrist emeritus Professor Julian Leff at University College London said that many of the patients did learned to stand up to their voices and told them to go away. The research study carried on was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in February.

Using the customized computer software, the patients created avatars that match the voices that they are hearing and after six therapy sessions, most of the patients said their voice had improved and three of the patients said that they had stopped hearing the voices entirely. The Wellcome Trust which is the world’s second largest biomedical charity said that it is giving the scientists at University College London and King’s College London about 1.3 million pounds ($2 million) to test the avatar therapy in more patients.

Schizophrenia is a disease that affects thinking, feeling and behavior in about one in every 100 people and prescription drugs help a quarter of them. The avatar therapy has reduced the frequency and intensity of auditory hallucinations of the patients in the United Kingdom. The trial conducted by Professor Leff and his team from University College – London, compared 14 patients who underwent avatar therapy with 12 patients receiving the standard antipsychotic medication on occasional visits to professional psychiatrists. After some time, the second group was also offered the avatar therapy.

Only 16 out of the 26 patients completed the therapy due to high drop rate attributed to fear instilled on the patients by their inner voices some of which threatened or bullied them into withdrawing from the study. The computer software used for avatar therapy uses gaming technology. Combined with FaceGen, the 3D facial construction software from Toronto based Singular Inversions and animation software from Annosoft of Richardson – Texas enabled patients to create a voice and face representing their tormentor.

The researchers also recorded the sessions through MP3 players so that the patient could replay them as a reminder of their capacity to overcome these bullying voices. A larger trail featuring about 142 patients is planned to be started during the next month in collaboration with the King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry. Avatar therapy is popular for its simplicity and brevity and may be made widely available in UK within just couple of years.

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