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Avatars help schizophrenics gain control of voices in their heads


May 30, 2013

Using a computer interface, schizophrenics were able to interact with avatars of the entities that they believed were tormenting them (Photo: Professor Julian Leff, UCL)

Using a computer interface, schizophrenics were able to interact with avatars of the entities that they believed were tormenting them (Photo: Professor Julian Leff, UCL)

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Imagine if there was a voice in your head that regularly threatened to harm you or your loved ones, or that even ordered you to do so yourself. Awful as that would be, such auditory hallucinations are one of the most common symptoms of schizophrenia, with approximately one in four sufferers continuing to experience them even once taking anti-psychotic drugs. Fortunately, scientists have recently helped some schizophrenics gain control of their condition, by turning those voices into interactive avatars.

In a study conducted at University College London, 16 schizophrenic test subjects worked with a therapist to select a computer-generated face and voice that they felt most closely matched the evil “entity” that was speaking to them. The therapist was then able to converse with the patient in real time via that avatar, its animated lip movements matching its speech.

In up to seven 30-minute sessions, each subject interacted with their entity’s avatar, and were encouraged to oppose its threats and orders. Not only did this allow the subjects to get comfortable with the idea of standing up to the “actual” entities themselves, but because they had taken part in creating the avatars, it helped them realize that the entities actually originated within their own mind.

Additionally, each subject received an MP3 recording of their sessions, which they could listen to whenever they started hearing voices again.

Some of the avatars created by the test subjects (Image: Professor Julian Leff, UCL)

Once they had completed all of their sessions, almost all of the participants reported a reduction in both the frequency and the severity of their hallucinations. Three of the subjects, who had been experiencing hallucinations for 16, 13 and 3.5 years, stopped hearing voices completely.

The research team just received a £1.3 million (US$1.98 million) award from UK-based global charitable organization the Wellcome Trust, to conduct a larger trial of the therapy. That trial will involve 142 test subjects and is scheduled to begin in July at King's College London. The first results are expected for the end of 2015.

The avatar therapy was developed by Julian Leff, Emeritus Professor of Mental Health Sciences at University College London.

Source: Wellcome Trust via New Scientist

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

That's... really quite clever. Hope they can help even more folks while developing this technique/-nology.

Chris Reid

Wouldn't this be nurturing their delusions ? Creating cartoons to correspond with perceived "voices" seems like it would reinforce rather than reduce .

Every one has "voices" in their head - only some don't recognize it as themselves . Every one talks to themselves . It's just that some say it out loud more than others - where it can be irritating for people around them.

The author should also include that there are devices which produce the effect of " voices in the head" , such as micro wave technology acting as the carrier embedded with "info" - there are plenty of patents online , actual kits and even soda machines that silently "talk" to passers-by.

While some people do have some real problems , it seems disingenuous to not include the gizmo's which can mimic their complaints and torment .

Alan Gee

Alan, is using a personification of the hallucinations in order to combat them any more "nurturing their delusions" than the established use of mirror boxes to combat painful phantom limbs?

It's easier to combat something that you can physically see and control than some ephemeral voice in your head. With your pat dismissal of the symptoms and the work done to help people with schizophrenia, it's painfully obvious that you don't have any kind of neurological disorders. I sincerely hope that you might be able to empathize with the people who have them, rather than simply crapping all over actual advances developed to threat these disorders.

Ryan Holtz

They should make the software free and open source to make it easily available to practitioners.

Eric Dragon

Thanks for the reply Ryan . Regarding your question : aren't the mirror boxes a reflection of themselves ? The cartoon method proposed above is entirely a fictitious construct . This could breed a further detachment from reality and with encouragement by "doctors" could induce MPD .

Alan Gee

This is great, good for them and i hope they can help alot of people, this is clearly working from the limited trial so far. I say aslong as it works, use it.


I've heard it said that the symptoms of schizophrenia--hallucinations and delusions--are so similar to the dream state only while awake, that everything from normal weakening consciousness through schizophrenia, hypnagogic visions and dreams are just the same process of throwing up random imagery which the brain filters by comparing to reality to varying degree. In a dream state the only filter is against memory and imagination. In hypnagogic states there is more information coming in to compare the randomness to and so a simulation of the real environment emerges by being reinforced with comparisons to the noise from the brain, just as in a waking state but stranger, dream-like elements and delusions are not effectively filtered out.

This training the patient to stand up to the voice and confront it may be helping to strengthen the inhibition of these elements by the filter during waking consciousness. At least, that is what I would speculate. It would be interesting to see what effect this training had on neuroanatomy in areas which are noticeably different in schizophrenia patients.

Snake Oil Baron
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