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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Avatar therapy helps silence voices in schizophrenia

A large scale study to evaluate avatar therapy for schizophrenia is being led by a consultant psychiatrist from South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.

Professor Thomas Craig is leading the randomised study of the avatar system, which enables people with schizophrenia to control the voice of their hallucinations.

The computer-based system could provide quick and effective therapy that is far more successful than current pharmaceutical treatments, helping to reduce the frequency and severity of episodes of schizophrenia.

It was developed by Professor Julian Leff, Emeritus Professor, UCL Mental Health Sciences and Dr Mark Huckvale and Dr Geoffrey Williams from the UCL Department of Speech, Hearing and Phonetics research department.  Professors Leff, Craig and colleagues have been awarded £1.3 million Translation Award from the Wellcome Trust to refine the system and evaluate this novel approach to schizophrenia therapy.

Professor Craig, who is also Professor of Social Psychiatry at King’s IoP said: “Auditory hallucinations are a very distressing experience that can be extremely difficult to treat successfully, blighting patients’ lives for many years.  I am delighted to be leading the group that will carry out a rigorous randomised study of this intriguing new therapy with 142 people who have experienced distressing voices for many years.

“The beauty of the therapy is its simplicity and brevity. Most other psychological therapies for these conditions are costly and take many months to deliver. If we show that this treatment is effective, we expect it could be widely available in the UK within just a couple of years as the basic technology is well developed and many mental health professionals already have the basic therapy skills that are needed to deliver it.”

In an early pilot of this approach carried out by Professor Leff, involving 16 patients and up to seven, 30 minute sessions of therapy, almost all of the patients reported an improvement in the frequency and severity of the voices that they hear. Three of the patients stopped hearing voices completely after experiencing 16, 13 and 3.5 years of auditory hallucinations, respectively. 

The first stage in the therapy is for the patient to create a computer-based avatar, by choosing the face and voice of the entity they believe is talking to them. The computer then synchronises 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.

The larger-scale study at the IoP will begin enrolling the first patients in early July. The team are currently training the therapists and research staff to deliver the avatar therapy and finalising the study set-up. The first results of this larger study are expected towards the end of 2015.

Schizophrenia affects around 1 in 100 people worldwide, the most common symptoms being delusions (false beliefs) and auditory hallucinations (hearing voices). People interested in finding out more about the new avatar trial should email

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