Facing off with an avatar on a computer screen helped patients who heard voices to better cope with their hallucinations, a trial study found.
The British study stated that patients who confronted an onscreen avatar became more relaxed, less distressed and heard voices less often compared to patients who had counseling, the BBC reports. This means that the therapy could be an important new method of treating schizophrenic hallucinations.
The UK-based trial involved 150 people and was a follow-up of a smaller pioneering study on the same in 2013.
Hallucinations are common in people who suffer from schizophrenia, and they can be threatening, disturbing and outright dangerous.
One in four patients continues to hear voices despite undergoing medications and cognitive behavioral therapy.
The study was conducted by scientists at King’s College London and University College London, where 75 patients who had been hearing voices for a year were given six sessions of avatar therapy, while another 75 received counseling.
In the avatar sessions, the patients were asked to create a computer simulation that gave a face to the voice they hears and wanted to control, including features like voice and appearance.
The therapist in charge then gave voice to the avatar while also speaking as him or herself, providing a three-way conversation so that the patient might gain the upper hand.
Tom Craig, one of the authors, stated that getting patients to confront the avatar was found to be safe, easy to do and more effective at counseling to reduce the voices the patient heard.
“After 12 weeks there was dramatic improvement compared to the other therapy,” Craig said.
With a talking head, patients are learning to confront and get replies from it. This shifts the idea that the voice is all-controlling.
In the sessions, patients are encouraged to talk to the avatar and control the conversation, saying things like, “I’m not going to listen to you anymore.”
Seven of the patients who underwent avatar therapy and two from the counseling group said that the vices disappeared after 12 weeks. However, at 24 weeks, patients in both groups had shown the same improvements, suggesting that avatar therapy might require “booster session” when done long-term.
The study was published in The Lancet Psychiatry.