By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Psychiatrists are developing a system that can help people with schizophrenia control and sometimes silence the tormenting voices in their heads by confronting a computer avatar of them.
In a pilot study of 16 patients who underwent the British experimental treatment, known as "avatar therapy", doctors found almost all of them reported a reduction in how often they heard voices and how severe the distress caused by them was.
The first stage in the therapy is for the patient to create a computer-based avatar by choosing a face and a voice for the entity they believe is talking to them.
The system then synchronizes the avatar's lips with its speech, enabling a therapist to speak to the patient through the avatar in real time. The therapist encourages the patient to oppose the voice and gradually teaches them to take control of their hallucinations.
"Even though 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," Professor Julian Leff, who developed the therapy, told reporters.
"The therapy helps patients gain the confidence and courage to confront the avatar, and their persecutor."
Schizophrenia is a psychiatric disorder that affects around one in 100 people worldwide. Its most common symptoms are delusions and auditory hallucinations, or hearing voices.
Leff said patients often told him the voices were the worst feature of their condition. "They can't think properly, they can't concentrate, they can't work and they can't sustain social relationships," the professor of mental health sciences at University College London told the briefing.
In the pilot study, three of the patients, who until the trial had been tormented by voices for between 3-1/2 and 16 years, stopped hearing them completely after working with the avatar system.
Each therapy session was also recorded and given to the patient on an MP3 player "so that the patient essentially has a therapist in their pocket which they can listen to at any time when harassed by the voices", Leff said.
As a result of the early success, the medical charity The Wellcome Trust has given Leff's team 1.3 million pounds ($2 million) to test the therapy in a larger group of patients.
Thomas Craig, a psychiatrist who will lead the larger trial at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, said auditory hallucinations were particularly disturbing for patients and can be extremely difficult to treat successfully.
"The beauty of the (avatar) therapy is its simplicity and brevity," he said. "Most other psychological therapies for these conditions are costly and take many months to deliver."
He added that if the larger trial proved successful, avatar therapy could be widely available within a few years, since the technology is relatively simple and many mental health professionals already have the skills needed to deliver it.
(Editing by Alison Williams)