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Avatars created by schizophrenia patients and operated by therapists – a treatment that has shown encouraging results in a pilot study. Photograph: Professor Julian Leff/UCL/PA

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness, which effects approximately 2.4 million Americas. Individuals with schizophrenia display a myriad of symptoms including bizarre or disorganized behavior, thought patters and emotional responses. The most well know symptom is hearing voices, though hearing voices is not a requirement to be diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is particularly difficult to treat. It was not until the advent of anti-psychotic medication that there was even an effect method of treatment. Prior to that individuals with schizophrenia were frequently put away in mental institutions indefinitely or they were subjected to lobotomies or electo-convulsive therapy.

The advent of anti-psychotic medications in the 1950’s allowed for more reasonable treatment of individuals with schizophrenia. Unfortunately the medications don’t always work or they may come with significant side-effects. Attempts to utilize more traditional talk therapies with schizophrenic individuals has not shown to be particularly effective. But now there may be a new option available.

A pilot study (small scale initial investigation) has yielded some very interesting results in treating individuals with schizophrenia using talk therapy. The patients created an avatar for the voice(s) they heard. They created a face and voice to mimic the one that they hear in their head.

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 Guardian

The idea is that by turning the voice(s) into an avatar then the patient can deal with them like any other relationship. The therapist plays the role of both therapist and the avatar by responding in either their normal voice or in the voice of the avatar. With the guidance of the therapist patients are able to respond to the avatar and learn how to confront their own voices. Patients are empowered to challenge the disturbing statements made by their voices.

After only seven 30 minute session there was a decrease in the severity and frequency of the voices heard by the patients. Yes that was only 3 1/2 hours of therapy and they saw a difference. In fact 3 out of 16 patients stopped hearing voices all together. It is very impressive that so much improvement can be made so quickly. Now a larger study is going to be conducted at the King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry and may have results toward the end of 2015.

This could change the lives of millions of people for the better. It could help empower individual’s with schizophrenia so that they can take control over the voices that have plagued them for years. This discovery could bring about a revolution in the treatment of schizophrenia. I truly hope that the larger study yields as good results as the pilot so that this treatment can be brought to people in need as soon as possible.