A fascinating study led by King's College in London has shown success in rapidly reducing auditory hallucinations in people with schizophrenia. The technique uses a novel form of avatar therapy, which essentially allows a person to talk to a visual representation of the voice in their head.

Auditory hallucinations are one of the more debilitating aspects of schizophrenia, with drug treatments and counselling often proving ineffective in addressing the problem for approximately a quarter of patients. This new study chronicles a randomized clinical trial involving 150 schizophrenic patients with auditory hallucinations that had proved resistant to other forms of treatment.

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

The avatar therapy consisted of one 50-minute session per week, for six weeks, and stared with the patient constructing the look and sound of their voice'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 with their therapist and the avatar in which the therapist would control and voice the avatar, ultimately forcing the patient to confront the avatar's aggressions or criticisms.

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

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

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 new approach and these early results are very encouraging," says Ann Mills-Duggan from the Wellcome Trust, which funded the trial. "If the researchers can show that this therapy can be delivered effectively by different therapists in different locations, this approach could radically change how millions of psychosis sufferers are treated across the world."

The study was published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry.

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

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