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New hope to treat schizophrenia with therapist-controlled avatars

Scientists are examining whether computer-generated avatars can help patients with schizophrenia.

The avatars are designed by patients to give a form to voices they may be hearing, then controlled by therapists who encourage patients to oppose the voices and gradually teach them to take control of any hallucination.

A new study has been launched to assess the effectiveness of using the technology. Researchers, who have been given a £1.3m grant from the Wellcome Trust, hope that the system could provide “quick and effective therapy” to help patients reduce the frequency and severity of episodes.

Almost all of the 16 patients who underwent up to seven 30-minute sessions in a pilot study conducted by researchers at University College London (UCL) reported a reduction in the frequency and severity of the voices that they heard.

Three of the patients stopped hearing voices completely.

Julian Leff, emeritus professor of mental health sciences at UCL, who developed the therapy and is leading the project, said: “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. As a result, the therapy helps patients gain the confidence and courage to confront the avatar, and their persecutor.

“We record every therapy session on MP3, so that the patient essentially has a therapist in their pocket which they can listen to at any time when harassed by the voices. We’ve found that this helps them to recognise that the voices originate within their own mind and reinforces their control over the hallucinations.”

The larger study, which will be conducted at the King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry, will begin enrolling patients in early July. The first results are expected towards the end of 2015.

“Auditory hallucinations are a very distressing experience that can be extremely difficult to treat successfully, blighting patients’ lives for many years,” said Professor Thomas Craig of the King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry, who will lead the larger trial.

“I am delighted to be leading the group that will carry out a rigorous randomised study of this intriguing new therapy with 142 people who have experienced distressing voices for many years.

“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.”

Paul Jenkins, chief executive of the charity Rethink Mental Illness, added: “We welcome any research which could improve the lives of people living with psychosis. As our Schizophrenia Commission reported last year, people with the illness are currently being let down by the limited treatments available. While anti-psychotic medication is crucial for many people, it comes with some very severe side effects. Our members would be extremely interested in the development of any alternative treatments.”

Schizophrenia is estimated to affect around 400,000 people in England.

The most common symptoms are delusions and auditory hallucinations. Experts estimate that as many as one in four patients do not benefit from drugs which help people with the condition.