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How giving a face to the voices in their heads can help schizophrenics

How giving a face to the voice...
Avatar therapy consists of a schizophrenic patient coming face-to-face with a visual representation of the voices in their head
Avatar therapy consists of a schizophrenic patient coming face-to-face with a visual representation of the voices in their head
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A variety of avatars created by subjects in the study
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A variety of avatars created by subjects in the study
Avatar therapy consists of a schizophrenic patient coming face-to-face with a visual representation of the voices in their head
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Avatar therapy consists of a schizophrenic patient coming face-to-face with a visual representation of the voices in their head
The patient constructs the avatar with the guidance of a therapist
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The patient constructs the avatar with the guidance of a therapist

A fascinating study led by King'sCollege in London has shown success in rapidly reducing auditoryhallucinations in people with schizophrenia. The technique uses a novel form ofavatar therapy, which essentially allows a person to talk to a visualrepresentation of the voice in their head.

Auditory hallucinations are one of themore debilitating aspects of schizophrenia, with drug treatments andcounselling often proving ineffective in addressing the problem for approximately a quarter ofpatients. This new study chronicles a randomized clinical trialinvolving 150 schizophrenic patients with auditory hallucinations thathad proved resistant to other forms of treatment.

The subjects were divided into twogroups: 75 patients who underwent the new avatar therapy and 75 whowere given a more traditional form of support counselling.

Theavatar therapy consisted of one 50-minute session per week, for sixweeks, and stared with the patient constructing the look and sound of theirvoice's avatar with the help of a therapist. For a portion of each therapy session the patient would then engage in a three-way conversation withtheir therapist and the avatar in which the therapist would control andvoice the avatar, ultimately forcing the patient to confront theavatar's aggressions or criticisms.

A variety of avatars created by subjects in the study
A variety of avatars created by subjects in the study

After 12 weeks the avatar-treated groupdisplayed less severe and less distressing symptoms than those in thecounselling group. A small minority of subjects in the avatar group even reported that their auditory hallucinations completely disappeared after thisshort three-month window.

At the 24-week mark the improvementswere still sustained by those in the avatar group, but notably thosein the counselling group also displayed improved symptoms by this point.Ultimately, by the six-month mark there were no identifiabledifferences between the two groups.

The patient constructs the avatar with the guidance of a therapist
The patient constructs the avatar with the guidance of a therapist

So the primary benefit of this auditory therapy seems to be its rapid reduction in symptoms, without having to rely on forms of therapy that only take effect after several months. The study suggests that avatar therapy such as this could ease the load on the public health system and also be incorporated into broader treatments so as to improve overall success rates.

"Avatar therapy is a promising newapproach and these early results are very encouraging," says AnnMills-Duggan from the Wellcome Trust, which funded the trial. "If theresearchers can show that this therapy can be delivered effectivelyby different therapists in different locations, this approach couldradically change how millions of psychosis sufferers are treatedacross the world."

The study was published in the journalThe Lancet Psychiatry.

Take a look at the treatment in actionin the video below.

Source: King's College London

Avatar therapy for schizophrenia

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