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Animated avatars help schizophrenia patients overcome voices

“It’s as if she left the room.” For many people in Missouri suffering from audio hallucinations brought on by schizophrenia, having the voice in their head stop tormenting them would make a world of difference in their quality of life. Many people with schizophrenia have hallucinations that keep “talking” in their heads virtually all the time, often encouraging them to engage in self-destructive behavior.

While the majority of schizophrenic hallucinations can be managed with medication, about a quarter of cases do not respond to drugs. Besides preventing them from working, not getting treatment for the voices can cause grave harm: about 10 percent of schizophrenia patients commit suicide.

For those for whom medication does not help with hallucinations, cognitive behavioral therapy is currently the most common approach. But a new study suggests that new computer technology could help patients confront their “demons” and silence the hallucination.

The study used a combination of software that creates three-dimensional facial  construction and another that creates animations. Participants worked with researchers to create a 3-D avatar and computerized voice to represent their hallucination. Using special 3-D glasses, they see an animated version of the avatar. The professor behind the study then used the computerized voice to speak as the hallucination. Only this time, the patient could talk back and hopefully gain control over the delusion.

The therapy seems to be potentially promising. The study says that it was twice as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy at ending the voice. One participant had been living with a voice that “spoke” to him all day for three and a half years. After two half-hour sessions, the voice disappeared. “It’s as if she left the room,” he said.

Source: Bloomberg, “Avatar Therapy Helps Silence Schizophrenia’s Voices,” Andrea Gerlin, May 29, 2013


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