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Virtual avatars to help schizophrenics fight their “voices”

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Schizophrenia
To help schizophrenics fight the “voices” in their head, researchers have developed digital avatars meant to personify them

“You’re worthless!” Throws a virtual man’s face that appears on the screen. “Can you go please,” a woman sitting in front of the computer tells him. To help schizophrenics fight the “voices” in their head, researchers have developed digital avatars meant to personify them.

At first shy, the patient’s voice firmed up: “I’m not going to listen to you anymore!” This exchange is part of an innovative treatment developed by English researchers and whose first results are presented Friday in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry.

Seventy-five patients followed this therapy for a three-month trial, while continuing their drug therapy.

According to the authors of these works, seven of these patients “have completely stopped hearing voices”. In comparison, they were only two in another 75-person control group who received medical advice instead of avatar-based therapy.

About two-thirds of schizophrenics hear imaginary voices that often insult or threaten them, according to lead author Tom Craig of King’s College London.

Most often, medications reduce symptoms, but a quarter of patients continue to hear these voices, the study says. This was the case for the 150 people who took part and live with three or four “voices” on average.

Avatars make it possible to materialize these threatening voices so that the patients confront them then dominate them, argue the authors of the study.

Thanks to patients’ indications, the tone of the voice that torments them and the face they associate with them are recreated by computers.

They then follow six 50-minute sessions in which they are confronted with this computer avatar interposed. In another room, the therapist guides them through a microphone. It is also he who endorses the voice of the avatar and makes him address the patient.

The goal is that over the course of therapy, the patient takes confidence becomes more and more affirmative and the avatar gives ground.

“We go from something very scary to something that is under the control of the person,” says Craig.

The independent experts who commented on this work consider it to be promising, but believe that further trials are needed to confirm its effectiveness and to define the type of patient they are best suited to.

Some 20 million people worldwide have schizophrenia, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

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