A recent study shows that for people with schizophrenia, creating an avatar representation of voices heard in their head helps to alleviate the pressure of these voices and can even cause them to disappear.

An initial study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, examined patients with schizophrenia who had failed to respond to medication. These patients were encouraged to customize avatars to match the voices they were hearing. A psychiatrist spoke to the patients through these on-screen avatars during several therapy sessions. The patients were motivated to criticize the voices and to tell them to go away. The on-screen avatar eventually began to say things like "All right, I'll leave you alone," as well as offering helpful comments.

After six sessions, the majority of patients said the voices had improved. They said they heard the voices less frequently, or they were less distressed by them. Three of the patients said the voices had stopped entirely.

However, only sixteen of the 26 patients who initially started the trial managed to finish the sessions. The researchers say that the low completion rate was most likely due to fear the patients had of their voices, which probably "bullied" them into dropping out.

The trial will expand to include nearly 150 patients starting next month at the King's College London Institute of Psychiatry. The professor who will lead this expanded study, Thomas Craig, says he hopes that if the treatment is helpful, it could be "widely available in the UK within just a couple of years."

[image via Kheng Guan Toh, Shutterstock]