Scientists have created avatars for the hallucinatory voices of schizophrenic people

Schizophrenia is one of the most challenging mental illnesses that a person can live with and, if left untreated, it can totally erode all sense of reality and self-esteem. According to a report conducted by the Psychiatric Times, as many as 40 per cent of people suffering from it will attempt suicide.

More damaging is that fact that many myths and misapprehensions regarding schizophrenia persist even today, and lots of people confuse it with multiple personality disorder. Schizophrenia is not a condition where split personalities are the norm. Instead, it comprises a broad spectrum of symptoms and side-effects, which may include delusional or paranoid thinking, hallucinations such as hearing voices that others do not hear, as well as sights and smells which have no bearing in reality. They may exhibit a lack of empathy, and often suffer from other problems such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse or addiction as a result of the stress brought on by living with the condition.

Artwork from a schizophrenic person. Credit: Getty

Of this myriad of maladies, the visual and auditory hallucinations are perhaps the hardest for sufferers to endure. Many schizophrenics are constantly tormented by voices in their head, which can be coercive or bullying depending on the situation, and can often overwhelm the other senses. The voices might force the sufferer to engage in acts of self-harm, or to perform feats which they find humiliating, degrading or painful. Some schizophrenics can even act out violently as a result of the pressure put upon them, and curbing the worst impulses these hallucinations provoke is one of the hardest jobs for medical and psychiatric professionals.

Yet, now it seems that a group of researchers have applied modern technology to the symptoms manifested by schizophrenic people, and have used a technical innovation to relieve the burden for them in a surprising way. A study conducted by scientists from King's College London, and recently published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal, has detailed how computer-generated avatars have been used to personify some of the hallucinatory voices which schizophrenics hear daily - and the therapeutic benefits have reportedly been profoundly positive.

Researchers at the Maudsley Hospital SHARP clinic and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, asked 75 schizophrenic patients who had suffered from auditory hallucinations for approximately 20 years to engage with their computer-generated avatars. A control group of another 75 people were treated only with counselling and both groups were also taking a course of antipsychotic medication. The patients worked with therapists to build a computer-animated simulation of the voice they found to be most manipulative and antagonistic - and their descriptions of the voice reflected what that avatar would look like.

The avatar therapy consisted of six 50-minute session sessions, in which the patients were encouraged to engage in a three-way dialogue with their avatar and therapist. The patients were encouraged to speak directly to this interface, correcting its misconceptions and taking control of the conversation, so that power shifted from the avatar to the patient. The sessions were recorded, and the patients were encouraged to listen to the voices in their more lucid moments. This form of therapy reportedly gave the majority of the patients a much higher feeling of agency and control over their hallucinations. Seven of the participants who had the avatar therapy later reported that their hallucinations had completely disappeared after a period of only three months.

A slideshow detailing symptoms of schizophrenia. Credit: Getty

The study's lead author, professor Tom Craig, stated: "'A large proportion of people with schizophrenia continue to experience distressing voices despite lengthy treatment, so it is important that we look at newer, effective and shorter forms of therapy ... 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. So far, these improvements appear to last for up to six months for these patients. However, these results come from one treatment centre and more research is needed to optimise the way the treatment is delivered and demonstrate that it is effective in other NHS settings."

Ann Mills-Duggan, who funded the £1.3 million trial, said: "Schizophrenia affects one in 100 people, often with a devastating effect, making it impossible for people to work and sustain relationships. Avatar therapy is a promising new approach and these early results are very encouraging. 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."

If you or anyone else you know is suffering as a result of visual or auditory hallucinations, or you suspect that they may be dealing with schizoid traits which are unmanageable, then please do not hesitate to seek help by consulting a doctor. For further help and advice on the subject then please visit Mind for more advice and further information.

 

Featured illustration by Egarcigu